President’s Message: Let Us In

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Tex. Code Crim. Pro. Art. 20.011 permits the following people inside a Texas grand jury room during proceedings: grand jurors, bailiffs, prosecutors, witnesses (while being examined or when their presence is necessary to assist the prosecutor), interpreters, stenographers and videographers.

Defense lawyers are not allowed in the room, even when a grand jury wants to hear from us. It’s time to change that.

The simplest way to do this is to amend the statute regarding persons “Who May Be Present in Grand Jury Room.” Tex. Code Crim. Pro. Art. 20.0111 The amended statute should add to the list of eligible people, an “Attorney for Defendant or Target, when requested by Grand Jury.” Target could be defined as any person or entity the Grand Jury believes may be a subject of a criminal prosecution, relating to the matter(s) of the Grand Jury’s investigation. The amendment would not permit the appearance of attorneys for fact witnesses who are neither under investigation nor threat of indictment.

There is an urgent need for grand jury reform in Texas. TCDLA and supporting groups are at the forefront of this movement. Two years ago during the Texas legislative session of 2019, the House and Senate considered versions of bills that would have required all grand jury testimony to be transcribed or video recorded, prevented repeat grand jury considerations after a case has been no-billed and a prosecutor has no new evidence (a.k.a. “grand jury shopping”), allowed witnesses and the accused to have their attorneys present during grand jury questioning, and required prosecutors to share with the grand jury evidence that is favorable to the accused. These were worthy measures, which, unfortunately, did not clear all the necessary hurdles to become law. I anticipate similar bills will be filed again in 2021.

But a bill allowing defense lawyers into the room upon request of a grand jury should be considered as a separate piece of legislation.

When I spoke on behalf of TCDLA to the Texas Judicial Commission (TJC) in February 2020, we discussed several potential reforms to the grand jury system. TJC considered ideas ranging from those contained in the aforementioned House and Senate bills, to my own suggestion of permitting examining trials at any time prior to trial. Our current system only allows examining trials before indictment,2 which means a prosecutor can sidestep a judicial inquiry into probable cause by (literally, in some instances) running to the grand jury room and securing an indictment. See State ex rel. Holmes v. Salinas, 784 S.W.2d 421, 427 (Tex. Crim. App. 1990) (Magistrate has no authority to block or delay a prosecutor from presenting a case to a grand jury.). Because of their unchecked power to skirt examining trials, prosecutors in many Texas counties have rendered nearly all of Chapter 16 of the Code of Criminal Procedure completely useless.

But unlike our discussion of previous, unsuccessful grand jury reform measures, as well as my own call to expand the use of examining trials, I did not detect any concern in allowing defense lawyers into a grand jury room — when a Texas grand jury specifically asks for us to be there. It makes perfect sense to allow a grand jury an opportunity to hear both sides of a story. Practitioners and citizens should also consider that an indictment often has a profound effect on a person’s life. A “true bill” can destroy someone financially and emotionally. Criminal lawyers often see clients lose their jobs and get separated from their families following an indictment. Many clients are saddled with harsh and restrictive conditions of bail. Some spend months or longer in jail, awaiting trial or disposition after a grand jury returns a true bill. The public and even many in the legal profession would be shocked to learn that not only do prosecutors get to pick and choose which evidence they share with grand juries, but prosecutors are under no legal obligation to present exculpatory evidence! U.S. v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36, 45-55 (1992) (A district court may not dismiss an otherwise valid indictment because the Government failed to disclose to the grand jury “substantial exculpatory evidence” in its possession.).

When it comes to grand jury reform, I am confident of several things: First, TJC and our Texas legislators do not want innocent people to get indicted. Nor do they wish to unnecessarily tie the hands of grand jurors. Further, I am certain that our state’s best prosecutors would feel comfortable permitting defense attorneys to share information — and possibly even their entire defensive strategy — with a grand jury, in those rare cases in which a defense attorney and a grand jury want to do exactly that.3 Finally, I am convinced that a minor alteration of the rule regarding who may be present in a grand jury room will neither slow things down nor lead to injustice. If a grand jury refuses to indict a person after hearing from a defense lawyer that’s exactly the kind of information that a good prosecutor will want to know in advance of trial.

I wish to emphasize that this proposed change would not convey a new right to defendants or their attorneys. It would merely be an additional option for grand juries in rare but appropriate cases.

It is time to let defense attorneys into the grand jury room. Today I am requesting that TCDLA’s Legislative Committee and our excellent lobbyists draft a very short bill to amend the applicable statute in the manner I have suggested. I ask that the proposed bill remain separate from any other bill to avoid getting it dragged into the larger morass of grand jury reform. Finally, I am sending a copy of this column to our friends at the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association (TDCAA), including TDCAA’s President and its Executive Director. They are intelligent and reasonable people. My hope is that TDCAA will join TCDLA and other stakeholders in this narrowly targeted effort to advance the cause of justice.

Footnotes

  1. Tex. Code Art. 20A.102 (effective January 1, 2021) supersedes the current statute but does not affect which people may be present in a grand jury room.
  2. Tex. Code Crim. Code Art. 16.01.
  3. To the anticipated suggestion that Texas should codify a defendant’s right to present grand jury packets, that is fine but insufficient. Most prosecutors already eagerly accept defense grand jury packets. However, written packets are no substitute for the Q&A and detailed discussion that a live appearance by a defense practitioner may allow, in appropriate cases.
TCDLA
TCDLA
Grant Scheiner
Grant Scheiner
Grant Scheiner is the 50th President of TCDLA. He is Managing Attorney of Scheiner Law Group, P.C. in Houston. Grant has practiced law since 1992, representing clients in state and federal courts. He is board-certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization (TBLS) and currently serves on the TBLS Board. He is a Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation, a Life Member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a former Large Section Representative to the State Bar Board of Directors, and a former Chair of the Computer & Technology Section of the State Bar of Texas. Grant is a single dad, a relentless trial lawyer and a passionate advocate for the rights of criminal defense attorneys and their clients.
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