by Jeffrey L. Boney
Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times
There were more than 1,200 new or amended laws and resolutions voted on in this last Texas Legislative session – grand jury reform was one of them, and the change became effective September 1.
H.B. 2150, authored by State Rep. Alvarado (Houston) and sponsored by Sen. John Whitmire (Houston), will replace the often criticized grand jury commissioner or “pick-a-pal” method of empanelling grand jurors with the random selection method.
“I think Texans need to feel that their justice system is equally just for everybody and not selectively just for a few,” said Rep. Alvarado. “Starting September 1, the empaneling of grand juries in Texas will leave behind a highly subjective system and progress towards highly objective system. The process will evolve from susceptible of abuse, to resistant to abuse. ”
The new law will also update the process for challenging grand jurors for good cause, and gives the presiding judge the ability to remove grand jurors who neglect their duty and provides judges the flexibility to appoint up to four alternate grand jurors if needed.
“Make no mistake, our work is not done,” said Alvarado. “The task of implementing these reforms and shining a spotlight on the many blemishes of the Texas Justice System still lies ahead. I look forward to working with Sen. Whitmire and other advocates to rebuild and improve the trust between our community and the criminal justice system.”
Prior to this change, individuals who were selected to serve on a grand jury, especially in Harris County, often consisted of people who had past experience in the legal and criminal justice system, or those who had close ties to the judge presiding over the cases; law enforcement officials; other grand jury members; attorneys, bail bonding companies; and various other members of the legal and criminal justice system.
Since 2004, Harris County grand juries have cleared Houston police officers in shootings 289 consecutive times.
Many community activists, lawyers, judges, elected officials and Texans hope this new legislation will end the perception that the grand jury process is unfair and discriminatory.