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Grand jury in police shooting: What you need to know | Commentary

Grand jury in police shooting: What you need to know
Ninth Judicial Circuit state attorney Andrew Bain has decided he wants grand juries to vet all police shootings. That means the decision will take place behind closed doors. But Bain has vowed to give the public some insight and transparency on the normally secretive process. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)


There are still a lot of questions about the case where Osceola County deputies shot and killed a teenager accused of shoplifting from Target last year.

The department says 19-year-old Jayden Baez used his car to try to escape and ram the officers’ vehicle. But Baez’s family has questioned the office’s version of events, saying it was suspicious that multiple officers waited more than a week to file reports on the same day at the same time with similar narratives. None of the officers were wearing body cameras to record what happened. The officers were in unmarked cars. And police experts have questioned the level of force for a case that involved $46 worth of pizza and trading cards.

Obviously anyone who tries to hurt a cop is asking for trouble. But new prosecutor Andrew Bain says he agrees the case deserves a fuller vetting. So he’s sending it to a grand jury.

That could be good for accountability. Or it could be just political theater.

Grand juries, after all, can be powerful investigative tools. But they can also be patsies for prosecutors who want to pass the buck, since they’re enshrouded in secrecy unlike any other part of America’s justice system. Prosecutors control the show behind closed doors.

Still, Bain seems to be taking some steps for bolstering public confidence — including one that could peel back some of the secrecy. We’ll see how it plays out. Here’s what you need to know:

For starters, no other jury process works like grand juries where the public is not only banned from watching the proceedings, but participants, including the jurors themselves, are typically banned from ever discussing what happened.

This has raised red flags in the past — like the time a grand jury in Florida let child predator Jeffrey Epstein off easy when charges were first filed.

New York prosecutors would later send Epstein to prison. But no one ever heard what Florida prosecutors told their grand jury the first time — when Epstein walked away with a deal so lax, he was able to work in his office during his 13-month sentence.

Even when prosecutors tell the public what supposedly happened in a grand jury room, you don’t know if it’s the full story. Several years ago in Minnesota, a juror filed a lawsuit, begging for the right to speak publicly about what happened in the grand jury room after claiming the prosecutor had misrepresented what she and her fellow jurors had done behind closed doors. She was denied that right to speak.

For all those reasons, some prosecutors avoid grand juries, particularly in police shootings. As one Minneapolis prosecutor said: “I will make that decision. That’s my job.”

That said, grand juries can also be powerful tools to get to the truth, since they have the power to compel testimony and collect evidence.

Put it all together and Andrew Leipold, an expert in grand jury process at the University of Illinois College of Law, said grand juries can be incredibly effective at truth-vetting, yet also instruments of prosecutorial whim. “If the prosecutor doesn’t want an indictment,” Leipold said, “there’s not going to be an indictment.”

Leipold said the secrecy is a double-edged sword but that prosecutors can address public distrust by asking grand juries to issue reports that explain why they did what they did. I like that idea. And Bain says he may do just that.

In a new office policy on police-force cases, Bain says he will ask grand jurors if they want to make a statement at the conclusion of the case — either about the case itself or future policies they want to recommend.

Mark NeJame, the attorney for Baez’s family, said he also found it encouraging that Bain’s office told the Baez legal team they can send their own law-enforcement expert to address the grand jury. NeJame knows a prosecutor doesn’t have to do that. “All we want is the truth and to know what really happened,” NeJame said. “The families deserve to know. And the public deserves to know.”

Bain’s chief assistant, Ryan Williams, says the new Orange-Osceola state attorney agrees. “The State Attorney is committed to transparency and understands, as the policy repeatedly references, the toll these use of force incidents take on communities and officers alike,” Williams said. “This policy is our attempt to navigate a difficult situation and the interests involved with those values in mind.”

We’ll see how it all plays out. But so far, that sounds encouraging.

I should say before concluding that I believe Bain has no business being in this office the way he got there. Gov. Ron DeSantis usurped democracy and invalidated a legally held election when he decided to remove a duly elected public official who had broken no laws — even as DeSantis allowed his own appointees, like his former ethics commissioner, to remain in office while clearly violating state statutes.

If you’d read about some third-world dictator deciding to simply overrule local election results, you’d shake your head and think of a banana republic. If Bain has good ideas, he should make his case before the people and run for the office — just as Monique Worrell did.

But for now, he’s the state attorney. And so far, it’s encouraging to see him saying the right things about both accountability and transparency. Now we’ll just have to see how it plays out — in a format that doesn’t always foster either.

© 2023, Orlando Sentinel
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