In light of recent events, Tarrant County residents might have questions about our grand jury process as it considers police conduct which results in a death.
During the past four years, Assistant District Attorney Robert Huseman and I have had the responsibility of bringing all Tarrant County critical police incidents to the grand jury. We have helped investigate, prepare and present 18 cases.
Each was a tragedy. A number of officers were wounded and without exception, all the officers were traumatized. Fifteen fatalities were the result of gunshot wounds. All were male: 10 white, three Hispanic, one Asian-American, and one African-American.
Two African-American males died as a result of Taser use. One white male died in an auto collision.
In each shooting and Taser case, the officer was not indicted. The officer driving a reported 90 mph without siren or emergency lights is awaiting trial on a charge of manslaughter.
Texas law is clear: Unless waived by the accused, a felony allegation must be presented to a grand jury, which then deliberates and votes in a closed-door session.
Unlike a criminal trial jury, only 9 of the 12 grand jurors must agree to indict the accused. The grand jury’s only job is to decide whether there is probable cause to go forward, meaning there is “reasonably trustworthy information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that an offense has occurred and that the accused committed that offense.”
For the past 42 years, District Attorney Joe Shannon and predecessorTim Curry have firmly subscribed to the notion that the grand jury is an independent fact-finding body of citizens, committed only to the facts and the law.
The old saying that “a DA can convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich” has never applied in Tarrant County, and grand juries have never been used to further political agendas or swayed by public pressure.
That is particularly important when we are faced with a fatal encounter involving police.
Such encounters open the door to legitimate questions: Was there a reasonable alternative short of deadly force? Was the officer adequately trained? Was the action consistent with policy? Any question of racial or social animosity? Why were so many shots fired and why not toward a less vulnerable body part? What is the officer’s history, including past incidents and disciplinary matters?
In every such case I have presented to a grand jury each one of these questions has been asked and answered.
As prosecutors, we have a professional, legal, ethical and moral duty to ensure that all citizens, including law enforcement officers, are accountable.
To that end, I routinely invite family members of the deceased to speak to the grand jury. I present witnesses who offer often-conflicting and even contradictory versions. I extend invitations to lawyers representing the officer as well as lawyers representing family members of the deceased.
The last thing Robert, Joe and I want to do is create the impression that we are only presenting one side of the story.
During the past four years, Robert and I have devoted from one half-day up to five full days to present a case. However, our presentation is only the last step.
I sincerely believe our approach works in large part due to our demand for a thorough police investigation, the dedicated service of grand jurors and a fair District Attorney’s office.
As a result, we have avoided the problems and often-justified criticisms in other jurisdictions.
Our community should not be satisfied with less, and I trust we will not receive less as we welcome a new district attorney in 2015.
Jack V. Strickland is Tarrant County deputy chief criminal district attorney.