House Criminal Jurisprudence Hears House Bill 179, Proposing Changes to the Grand Jury Process

On Monday, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence heard 26 bills, including one added after the original posting notice – House Bill 179 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston).

April 16, 2021

Legislative News

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On Monday, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence heard 26 bills, including one added after the original posting notice – House Bill 179 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston).

HB 179, a re-filed version of Rep. Thompson’s House Bill 2398 from the 86th regular legislative session, proposes sweeping changes to the state’s grand jury process. The legislation contains provisions that would:

  • only permit a prosecutor to re-present a case to a subsequent grand jury if new material evidence is uncovered;
  • require the prosecutor to present any exculpatory information to the grand jury;
  • allow witnesses and suspects to have attorneys present during grand jury testimony and examination;
  • require recording of all grand jury proceedings, with the exception of deliberations;
  • mandate pre-indictment discovery to any suspect;
  • require anyone subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury to be given a reasonable opportunity to retain counsel;
  • and allow a suspect to sue a prosecutor to recover fees and costs, regardless of whether or not the person is indicted.

A number of prosecutors from all areas of the state came to the Capitol to testify against HB 179. Washington County District Attorney Julie Renken began her testimony by explaining the purpose and scope of grand juries, pointing out that the purpose of a grand jury is not to deliver a final conviction, but rather to find whether probable cause exists to hold an individual over for trial. She emphasized that a grand jury is an investigative body, which plays an important role in complex cases, such as those involving human trafficking or capital murder. Renken also pointed out that the legislature has already made two significant changes to the grand jury process in recent years – first, by doing away with the “pick-a-pal” system; and second, by narrowing who is eligible to serve as an attorney pro tem for grand jury purposes.

Johna Stallings, Division Chief of Adult Sex Crimes and Trafficking, and Assistant District Attorney Jules Johnson of the Civil Rights Division, both from Harris County, testified against the bill, pointing out to the committee how these proposed changes would negatively impact their ability to prosecute human trafficking cases or cases involving police misconduct. Johnson testified about the chilling effect that would occur if defense attorneys were allowed in grand jury proceedings. He stated that all officer-involved shooting cases automatically are presented to a grand jury in Harris County, for transparency purposes, and that it would be exponentially harder to get a police officer to testify against an accused fellow officer if that officer’s defense attorney was present. He stated, “You’re taking a case that was already difficult, and making it even more difficult.”

46th Judicial District Attorney Staley Heatly testified specifically about how this legislation would negatively impact his ability to prosecute sexual assault and family violence cases. He voiced concerns about provisions of the bill that would expose victims to their abusers early on in the process. HB 179 would mandate that the accused individual be given discovery pre-indictment, meaning the individual would have access to victim statements, potentially subjecting the victim to harassment and abuse. Heatly emphasized that “the reason the grand jury process is secret is to protect witnesses and victims.”

2nd Judicial District Attorney Elmer Beckworth and 106th Judicial District Attorney Philip Mack Furlow also testified against the bill. Beckworth stated he believes the provision restricting re-presentation to a subsequent grand jury is too narrow, and would result in unintended cases of grand juror nullification. Furlow stated he is concerned about turning the grand jury process into an adversarial proceeding. He pointed out that the Texas Judicial Council’s Criminal Justice Committee was tasked with studying any necessary reforms to the grand jury process this past year and was unable to do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council’s report stated that the committee believes it is an important issue “that needs more study and reflection” and that it would continue to monitor the issue and perhaps “make recommendations at a later time.” Furlow suggested that the issue should be studied in-depth prior to any sweeping changes.

Other district attorneys who came to Austin this week to assist with legislative efforts include: Laura Nodolf of the 142nd Judicial District, John Hubert of the 105th Judicial District, Carlos Garcia of the 79th Judicial District, Brian Middleton of the 268th Judicial District, and Audrey Louis of the 81st Judicial District.

For more information about this article, contact Amy Befeld.