When it comes to who is charged with serious crimes in Deschutes County and all of Oregon, the best that a prosecutor can tell the public is, “Trust me.” Our secretive grand jury process is antiquated and out of step with most of the rest of the country. A fresh dose of sunshine and transparency are needed.
As Deschutes County’s elected district attorney, I try my best to ensure justice is done in every potential criminal case that I review. The deputy district attorneys and I work with police to gather and review the facts in the cases that come across our desks. We also meet with alleged victims to hear their perspectives and we research and apply the law.
Then we go into a secret room and present evidence and make legal arguments to a grand jury. The grand jury members vote whether to charge a suspect with a crime. The proceedings are confidential. No recording is made, the suspect and defense attorneys are not present, and no one in the room can discuss what happened. There is no adversarial process or opportunity to challenge what is presented. My deputies and I decide what evidence is important. You are supposed to trust me, your local elected district attorney, to do the right thing.
Former President Ronald Reagan famously said we should trust but verify. He was referring to our relationship with the former Soviet Union and a nuclear arms reduction treaty, but he just as easily could have been talking about Oregon’s secret grand jury system.
It’s time for Oregonians to be granted the means to verify that what happens in grand jury rooms across our state comports with our shared values, our laws and our sense of justice. I’m confident that my deputies and I do the right thing in every grand jury hearing (granted, I’m biased in that assessment), but in our country we should not have to rely on the word of a government official as our sole proof of propriety.
It’s time for Oregon to join the 40-plus other states and the federal government that audio record grand jury proceedings. Prosecutors are entrusted with a tremendous amount of power, and the public deserves an objective record so that it can fairly assess how well we use it.
However, recording grand jury hearings is not as simple as placing a tape recorder on a table and pushing record. There are important considerations to address, but none are insurmountable.
Oregon must develop a system to professionally record grand jury proceedings, archive those recordings and provide transcripts to the parties. We need to develop procedures to keep confidential the testimony of witnesses and victims in those rare situations where the release of testimony would put someone at risk of harm. And we need to create rules that state a good-faith error in recording a particular case does not create a “technicality” defense that would allow a guilty person to walk free.
These important conditions are easily achievable if our goal is building trust in our criminal justice system.
Oregon takes pride in being a leader in open government and innovation, yet we lag behind the country on the issue of transparency in our criminal justice system.
Next month the Oregon Legislature will consider whether to require grand jury hearings to be audio recorded. I vote yes. When liberty and justice are involved, “trust me” is insufficient.
— John Hummel, Deschutes County District Attorney, lives in Bend.