Sunlight, They Say, is the Best Disinfectant

Amid recent, controversial grand-jury proceedings in New York, Missouri, and elsewhere, one prominent criminal-defense lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, still favors greater use of grand juries, especially in cases that arouse popular passion, suspicion, or cynicism. He’s probably right. Mr. Silverglate, who also litigates civil-liberties cases, warns those who blame grand juries that the alternative in these cases isn’t better:

“While the grand jury’s decision not to indict may, to some, taste of injustice in this particular case, [we] should always be wary of wishing for a more zealous prosecutorial approach that … robs [citizens] of their rightful role in deciding who should, and should not, be charged with serious felonies.”

Instead, Silverglate argues for greater transparency in the grand-jury process—more than we have now in federal cases and the many states that shroud such proceedings in secrecy and forbid most participants from releasing testimony and evidence to the public.

It’s a little more complicated than that because grand juries perform more than one function: they’re not just empowered to indict; they’re empowered to investigate. Often, they perform both of these accusatory and investigative functions at once, but not always, and in the case of longer-running, more complex investigations, the need for secrecy may trump the need for transparency. In fact, if you’re the subject or target of such an investigation, you may even value that secrecy if and when the grand jury concludes no crime was committed, or if one was, that you didn’t commit it.

But purely investigatory grand juries are special cases, and it’s harder to argue against transparency in most other cases when the cat’s already out of the bag. That can happen in higher-profile cases like the ones that have captured our attention of late, or it can happen in everyday cases where the accused is arrested and arraigned on a criminal complaint.

In such run-of-the-mill cases, in federal court, the government must either go to the grand jury and get an indictment or put on a preliminary hearing within 14 days of the arraignment if the defendant is in custody or 21 days if he’s not. See Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 5(c). Even if the defendant waives his right to a preliminary hearing, the government must file an indictment within 30 days of the arrest. 18 U.S.C. § 3161(b).

If a defendant does not waive his right to a preliminary hearing, the federal government will almost always present the case to the grand jury to avoid having to put one on.

The reason for that is simple. A preliminary hearing means the defense is there to cross-examine the government’s case. See Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 5.1. The grand-jury process, by contrast, is one-sided: there’s no defense attorney in the room; there’s no cross-examination or presentation of defense evidence; and the jury may hear evidence in summary form, including hearsay.

The point here is that when a defendant has already been publicly arrested, accused, and arraigned on a complaint, it’s hard to see the harm in letting in some sunlight to keep people honest. Perhaps we could even devise a rule that allows local public defender’s offices to audit the proceedings. How’s that for crazy talk. A little quality control wouldn’t hurt, and it could bring more balance, as well as perception of balance, to the scales of justice.

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