A McLennan County judge named a Waco police detective foreman over a newly-selected grand jury in Waco. The detective and this grand jury could end up presiding over the Twin Peaks biker cases.
The Waco Tribune-Herald reported that Detective James Head, was among the first 14 who were qualified to serve on the grand jury panel. He told the paper his being selected as grand jury foreman, “is kind of unusual.”
“If something comes up that I have worked on or something like that that involved any type of apparent conflict, I am not going to vote on it,” the detective said. He arrived at the grand jury selection wearing his police badge and sidearm.
The grand jury will decide whether individuals in criminal cases will be indicted. According to the Waco paper, “[t]he grand jury was selected using the new state-mandated random method.”
Criminal District Court Judge Ralph Strother named the officer foreman and told the Tribune-Herald, “That’s the way it turned out.” He continued, Texas law states that the first 12 people who are qualified are selected for the grand jury.”
The judge told the hometown paper, “There was nothing to prevent the detective from being a qualified member of the grand jury, just like there is nothing to prevent him from being a qualified juror.” The judge reasoned, “If there is nothing that challenges his impartiality, he is qualified. We have lawmen who get on jury panels all the time. Who is better qualified in criminal law than somebody who practices it all the time?”
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna told the publication, “That’s the system. He was chosen totally at random, like the law says.”
The new grand jury could end up determining the fate of some, or all, of the 177 bikers arrested at the Twin Peaks restaurant on May 17th. The shoot-out killed nine bikers and wounded twenty others.
On July 7th, Breitbart Texas reported that the other criminal district court judge in Waco, Judge Matt Johnson, reversed his decision to extend the term of a grand jury. That grand jury was selected under the old method of selecting grand juries.
Judge Johnson reversed his decision to use the grand jury that was then deciding criminal cases, saying he would now comply with a plan approved on June 11th. Judge Johnson was one of the judges who approved the plan, along with District Court Clerk Jon Gimble. The plan implements the new law in Texas that governs selections of grand juries. The law does not become mandatory until September 1, 2015.
On June 18th, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 2150 into law. It amends the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to change how grand juries are selected in Texas.
Grand juries have been selected by a system wherein criminal court judges appoint commissioners who then nominate individuals to serve as grand jurors. The system, called the “key man” and “pick-a-pal” system, has received much media attention for perceived injustices in the system. It has been criticized because of the absence of racial diversity and the connection between the judges and the grand jurors, among other things.
Grand jurors will now be selected like jurors in civil cases – from driver’s license and voter registration lists. Federal courts stopped the practice of picking jurors in this way decades ago.
Lisa Falkenberg, a columnist with the Houston Chronicle, was named a winner of a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her writings about the grand jury system in Texas. As reported by the Chronicle, Falkenberg received the award for her work on a series of 10 columns, many of which focused on “a corrupt and abusive grand jury system.” Many of Faulkenberg’s articles drew attention to the case of Alfred Dewayne Brown. Brown was released from death row in June 2015.
Falkenberg reported that the grand jury that indicted Brown intimidated a witness who could have exonerated him. She also reported that the grand jury included a former Houston Police Department officer. Brown had been indicted for the murder of a Houston police officer.
Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) serves as vice-chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and as chair of the State Affairs Committee. She told Breitbart Texas, “I do not want to second -guess the judge, but the appearance of impropriety could raise some concerns. The judge had the ability to disqualify the officer; maybe he can be a very good grand juror.”
The Senator continued, “Under the new law, a judge can remove anyone for good cause. I don’t know if the judge’s order in Waco tracks the new law effective September 1st, but the legislative intent was never to not let a judge use good judgment and discretion when comprising a grand jury.” Huffman previously served Texas as a state district criminal court judge in Harris County.
Breitbart Texas spoke with Houston based criminal defense lawyer and past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) Robert Fickman. Fickman said, “Pretending to afford justice is not the same as affording justice. Pretending to afford justice is an injustice. Where lives are at stake the people deserve better. Making a police officer the foreman of any grand jury is putting the fox in the henhouse. There will be no justice. This is a farce.”
Immediate past president of the HCCLA, Carmen Roe, had the same response. “It’s outrageous that Judge Strother chose a Waco police officer to lead the grand jury investigation into the Waco police arrests of over 150 citizens present at the Twin Peak’s biker rally,” she said. “This is just not how the grand jury process is supposed to work in Texas. While the selection of grand jurors is random, the choice of the foreman and assistant foreman is not.”
“Asking a police officer to oversee the investigation into whether his fellow officers violated the law makes a mockery of the criminal justice system,” she stated.
“The Waco Bench and DA’s office should look in the mirror and realize how foolish this looks to the outside world,” said famed Houston lawyer Dick Deguerin in response to an inquiry from Breitbart Texas. “First they round up the usual suspects, charge them all with a fill-in-the-blank complaint, set ridiculous million dollar bonds, refuse to have timely hearings, then put a local cop in charge of the grand jury. Even Stevie Wonder could see how unfair this looks.”
Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), told Breitbart Texas, “The whole point is the appearance of perception and fairness. This does not pass the perception test. This does not pass the reality test.”
“Starting with a police officer as the foreman of the grand jury is a horrible start. I am surprised the U.S. Department of Justice has not gotten involved,” the Senator added.
Senators Huffman and Whitmire both agreed that the new law does not require that the first 12 qualifying grand jurors be chosen. Senator Huffman added that the judge has discretion when choosing grand jurors.
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She is a former prosecutor and associate judge. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2