In Georgia, the case involving the death of Ahmaud Arbery is on its fourth prosecutor, but the grand jury will still come from Glynn County. Those looking to prosecute the policemen allegedly culpable for George Floyd’s death are looking at what happened in Ferguson, where a grand jury refused to indict an officer accused of killing Michael Brown. And there’s the case of Breonna Taylor from Louisville, and questions about police tactics that night.
There’s a potential for reform that my students and I analyzed. It comes from having a regularized grand jury system, even provisions to have a statewide grand jury. Would it be effective in prosecuting crimes, and even corruption?
My LaGrange College students, Tony Alexander, Thomas Bird, Emily Boswell, Tia Braxton, Brandon Collins, Emily Hughes, Carissa Lee, Ryan Mabee, James Monroe III, Valarie Hicks, Joe Thomas and Emily Wyzykowski researched the history of grand juries, which began in ancient Greece, replacing the power of tribal leaders to determine everything. The tradition continued through English custom, and continued through the founding of America.
In the United States, grand juries are used to determine if there is enough evidence for a trial to take place. More than one student was critical of how one-sided it seemed, as it was all about how effective the prosecution’s case might be. But the grand jury does not determine guilt or evidence, just whether a trial is warranted or not.
In our research project, my students found that having a regularized grand jury system was very important when it came to cases of corruption. Using Harry Enten’s measure of corruption rankings of states (corruption convictions and corruption convictions per capita) from 538.com we found that states with a regularized grand jury system (instead of abolishing grand juries or only having them on an ad hoc basis) were far more likely to land corruption convictions.
States with regularized grand juries had an average ranking of 21.3 out of 50 states versus those without a systematic grand jury system, which had an average ranking = 27.7 of 50). It was even stronger for corruption per capita. The average regularized grand jury ranking for a state was 18.9 of 50 states, while those without a regularized grand jury had an average ranking of only 29.7 of 50 states. For violent crime and other measures of corruption (reporter rankings, strength of anti-corruption laws), there was little difference in both types of states.
Perhaps an even better plan would be a statewide grand jury, where the grand jury would be drawn from across the state, not from a particular locale. For high-profile crimes and corruption, this would enable the defendants to get a fair process, and allow the prosecution to bring a case without having to worry about a local grand jury too afraid to take on the existing powers.
Florida and South Carolina have statewide grand juries. Florida used their statewide grand jury not only to determine whether the Parkland shooter should face trial, but also to investigate whether or not measures were being adequately taken to prevent another tragic school shooting from happening again.
Across this country, there’s been a lot of talk about police reform, and changes in police tactics in these cases. But we shouldn’t ignore how these cases are tried. And my students and I have found evidence that regularized grand juries in general, and statewide grand juries in particular, can not only reduce corruption, but may be ideal for investigating the procedures as well.
Editor's Note: John A. Tures wishes to thank Tony Alexander, Thomas Bird, Emily Boswell, Tia Braxton, Brandon Collins, Valarie Hicks, Emily Hughes, Carissa Lee, Ryan Mabee, James Monroe III, Joe Thomas and Emily Wyzykowski.
Image Credit: the Ahmaud Arbery Mural was created by Marvin Weeks was taken by Jay Thompson