Legislators endorse compromise on use of grand juries
Associated Press Writer
A Nevada Senate panel voted 4-3 Tuesday for a compromise bill on prosecutors’ use of grand juries, which some defense attorneys say can lead to abuses of the criminal justice system.
At previous hearings, defense attorneys asked lawmakers to support SB364, which originally would have barred state prosecutors from going to grand juries with cases that a judge has already thrown out at a preliminary hearing.
That’s a common practice, especially in Clark County, said Jason Frierson, a lobbyist for the Clark County Public Defender’s office.
Prosecutors objected to the bill, arguing that sometimes witnesses fail to show up to preliminary hearings, or freeze up when confronting a defendant. In those cases, it’s critical to retain the grand jury option, said Ben Graham, a lobbyist for the Nevada District Attorneys Association.
Under the compromise endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, prosecutors still can take failed cases to grand juries, but must inform the grand jury that a case was dismissed by a judge at a preliminary hearing. Currently, grand juries aren’t told whether a judge has tossed out a case.
Frierson said that the amended bill is a “step in the right direction,” but doesn’t solve the problem. It’s hard to know what effect the message will have on grand juries, he added.
“It sends the message that grand juries have an appropriate use,” said Frierson. “In Clark County, the grand jury is used as an automatic appeal to a failure at a preliminary hearing.”
Graham said that prosecutors aren’t thrilled about the bill, but it’s manageable.
“It’s something we can live with,” Graham said of the compromise. He also said grand jury indictments and preliminary hearings don’t determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said Tuesday the statement will be “boilerplate language” stating only that the case had been heard before, and a judge found the evidence insufficient. The defense will not be allowed to present any evidence to the grand jury, said Horne, who is also a criminal defense attorney.
“There’s no arguing over the merits of that evidence, or reasons why the judge found it insufficient or not,” said Horne. “It’s just a blank statement that it actually happened.”
The committee vote moves the bill to the Senate floor. Senators who voted against the bill said that while the amended version was a vast improvement, mandating such a statement still impinges on the independence of the grand jury.
“I think it handicaps the prosecution,” said Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, who opposed the bill. “It gives an unfair advantage to the defense.”