Grand Jurors Come Forward to Attack Perry: Legal, But Partisan

Grand Jurors Come Forward to Attack Perry: Legal, But Partisan

AUSTIN, Texas — Yesterday, several members of the Travis County grand jury that indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry last Friday had come forward to criticize Perry’s comments made in his own defense against the indictment.  

Despite the fact that the grand jurors had all been instructed not to discuss the proceedings publicly, several have made comments to the press, mostly critical of Perry. The Houston Chronicle posted two articles yesterday afternoon that included quotes from  four jurors, three who were identified by name, Janna Bessin, Rho Chalmers, Scott Hillman, and one male juror who asked to not be named.

The jurors’ comments were objections to comments made by Perry and his legal team that the indictments were politically motivated and not founded in the law. Bessin said that they had “really tried to keep an open mind and come to a fair decision given all the testimony that we heard,” and that Perry’s criticism was unfair, but she guessed it was “his side’s job–to really spin it.” Chalmers denied political motivations: “For me, it’s not a political decision. That’s what a grand jury is about – take the emotion out of it and look at the facts and make your best decision based on your life experience.” Hillman called the criticisms of their work “disrespectful,” and discussed how hard they had worked. “We were asked to serve, we attended eight sessions over the course of five months, we listened to hours of evidence and we formed opinions, and those opinions were not motivated by politics,” he said. “They were simply motivated by our understanding of the facts as applied to the law.” The anonymous male juror expects the public perception to change once the full scope of the prosecutor’s case becomes public. “I think if and when the facts come out, that’ll change,” he is quoted as saying.

Several sources have confirmed with Breitbart Texas that the Travis County Clerk’s office provided a list of the names of the members of the grand jury to multiple members of the press (Breitbart Texas was not among those that received the list but will be requesting it shortly). It does not appear that the grand jurors who have spoken to the press initiated the contact, but rather were responding to inquiries from reporters who contacted them after the clerk’s office released their names. Regardless, when there is a legal duty to keep information confidential from a court proceeding, who initiated the contact is not usually a relevant issue.

Chapter 19 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure includes the rules that govern grand juries, and Article 19.34 provides the oath to which all grand jurors must swear:

Art. 19.34. OATH OF GRAND JURORS.  When the grand jury is completed, the court shall appoint one of the number foreman;  and the following oath shall be administered by the court, or under its direction, to the jurors:  “You solemnly swear that you will diligently inquire into, and true presentment make, of all such matters and things as shall be given you in charge;  the State’s counsel, your fellows and your own, you shall keep secret, unless required to disclose the same in the course of a judicial proceeding in which the truth or falsity of evidence given in the grand jury room, in a criminal case, shall be under investigation.  You shall present no person from envy, hatred or malice;  neither shall you leave any person unpresented for love, fear, favor, affection or hope of reward;  but you shall present things truly as they come to your knowledge, according to the best of your understanding, so help you God”.

As a general rule, it is rare for grand jurors to publicly speak out about one of their cases, especially while the matter is still actively pending. Breitbart Texas legal analyst and former judge Lana Shadwick reviewed the grand jurors’ comments in the Chronicle article and did not believe that the grand jurors had crossed the line into illegal conduct, because their remarks were general statements–mostly that they had worked hard and done their best to be fair–and the content of their remarks included neither direct discussions of the evidence presented to them nor their deliberations.  

“Grand jurors do not publicly speak out as a general rule,” said Shadwick. “For one, in indicting criminal defendants, it could be dangerous to do so. They occasionally do so in highly- publicized cases where they feel they have been publicly personally questioned.”

Arguably, the one anonymous juror who was quoted as saying that public perception about the case would change “if and when the facts come out” is commenting on the evidence that was presented to the grand juror, but in such a broad and general sense that it would likely be difficult to make a case against him.

On the other hand, the accusations that the grand jury was partisan may be stronger. Travis County has long been one of the most reliably liberal counties in the entire state of Texas, with over sixty percent of the general election voters in 2012 voting for President Obama’s re-election, and was the only county where a majority of the voters opposed the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that was on the ballot in 2005.

The Chronicle reporters were able to identify nine of the twelve grand jurors; the remaining three are unidentified because they have popular names. Of the nine identified grand jurors, voting records showed a significant Democrat skew:

[F]ive have voted only in Democratic Party primaries over the last 20 years, according to county records. One has voted in both Democratic and Republican primaries during that time, while three have not voted at all.

None of the nine appear to have donated anything to major political candidates over that time.

In other words, of the jurors who have been identified, there are no strong Republicans, but there are five Democrats and one swing voter.

A quick search for publicly available information on Facebook revealed that Rho Chalmers, quoted in both Chronicle articles, lists that she has “liked” numerous liberal groups and pages, including Central Austin Democrats, Black Austin Democrats, Garry Brown for Travis County Commissioner (a Democrat candidate), South Travis United Democrats, University Democrats, Vote for Chantal (a page for Chantal Eldridge, a Democrat candidate for Travis County Criminal Court Judge), etc. The “About Rho” section of her Facebook page describes her interests as “Computers, helping people learn to help themselves, gardening, cats and, recently, learning about the political machine.”

Breitbart Texas is continuing to monitor this story.

Sarah Elizabeth Rumpf is a political and communications consultant living in Austin. You can follow her on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.