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Breonna Taylor Case Reignites Criticism Over Grand Juries

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Recordings from the grand jury proceedings in Breonna Taylor's case are expected to be released today. The grand jury's decision to not indict police officers for Taylor's killing touched off angry protests last month, and it's revived long-standing doubts about the role of grand juries, especially in cases that involve police. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When you talk to the experts about grand juries, it doesn't take long before they mention ham sandwiches, specifically the old legal cliche that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to bring charges against anybody, even a ham sandwich.

KEVIN WASHBURN: People have said it for years, and it seems kind of true.

KASTE: Kevin Washburn is the dean of the University of Iowa College of Law. And about a decade ago, he wrote a law review article about how the grand jury has become, quote, "one of the least respected institutions in American criminal justice." Grand juries are a distinctly American institution. In other countries, it's usually left to a judge to OK criminal charges against somebody, but grand juries bring regular citizens into that process. They're supposed to be a check on the power of prosecutors. And in theory, they can block flimsy cases from going forward, though in practice, they rarely do.

WASHBURN: If a prosecutor goes into the grand jury wanting to get an indictment, they usually get it, you know, 99.9% of the cases.

KASTE: And that kind of stands to reason. The prosecutors know the law. They present the evidence to the grand jurors, and they run the show. But Washburn says, sometimes, the prosecutor chooses to be less convincing with a grand jury.

WASHBURN: In cases involving police shootings, grand juries often fail to indict.

KASTE: In politically volatile cases involving police shootings, he says a prosecutor may decide to give a grand jury a more ambiguous case, including evidence that may raise doubts and give the jurors more reason to decide not to bring charges. In recent years, the suspicion that prosecutors use grand juries this way has only grown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGORY MEEKS: You know, this is a scenario almost where you say, who do you believe? Me or your lying eye?

KASTE: That's New York City Congressman Gregory Meeks back in December of 2014, right after a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict the police officer who wrestled Eric Garner to the ground by the neck, leading to his death. That failure to charge caused widespread outrage, and Meeks, a former prosecutor, demanded to know how the district attorney had presented his case to the grand jury.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEEKS: We need to see the transcripts. We need to know whether or not, after he presented his case, whether he asked that grand jury for an indictment or not.

KASTE: To this day, those deliberations remain secret. Grand jury secrecy is meant to protect the jurors and the potential defendants, but it's also led to legal fights and calls for more transparency, especially in high-profile cases of people shot by the police, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson. That's why this move to release the actual recordings of the Breonna Taylor grand jury stands out, especially because it was one of the jurors who demanded this disclosure, says Cardozo Law professor and former prosecutor Jessica Roth.

JESSICA ROTH: I think it's both fascinating and important that this grand juror spoke up, and so I wonder if we will see a similar protest from grand jurors in other circumstances.

KASTE: If so, Roth thinks that this could help to redeem grand juries and the old original idea that regular people should play a role in deciding when to bring criminal charges. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.