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Proposed law could rein-in police privilege with grand juries | News

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Proposed law could rein-in police privilege with grand juries

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Ga. -- The wheels of justice could soon begin turning in the controversial shooting death in December.

And the way that the justice system handles the case could rely not only on the decisions by the Douglas County District Attorney, but also on a decision at the State Capitol.

In December, CNN security guard Bobby Daniels was shot and killed by a Douglas County Sheriff's Deputy.

Now, two months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has finished its investigation and has turned over its report to the D.A., who will decide whether to take the case to a grand jury for a possible indictment.

But while the D.A., Brian Fortner, is evaluating the case, he is also pushing for a change in state law - and the change that Fortner is seeking could also impact whether the Deputy will face prosecution.

Fortner helped write a bill, House Bill 941, which passed the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday - 161 to 0 - that would ban law enforcement officers involved in controversial, fatal shootings from sitting in on the grand juries that are investigating them.  Under current Georgia law, they are allowed to be present, and listen to the case that a prosecutor presents to the grand jury, and when the prosecutor is finished, the law enforcement officer is allowed to make a statement.  The prosecutor is not allowed to cross examine the officer.  Grand jurors are not allowed to question the officer.  No one speaks after the officer speaks.  The officer gets the last, unchallenged, word, and then the grand jurors decide whether to indict the officer.  No other state gives law enforcement officers those rights.

Bobby Daniels’ wife Cynthia is calling on the district attorney to take the case to a grand jury and prosecute the Deputy who shot and killed Daniels.

Deputies had rushed to a mobile home park suspecting a violent crime was taking place.  Daniels' grown son was a suspect and was armed.  The Daniels family and other witnesses have said that Daniels tried to take the handgun away from his son.  Part of the investigation centers on whether, for a moment during the struggle, the gun pointed toward a Deputy.  One of the Deputies on the scene shot and killed Daniels.  

If the bill that D.A. Fortner supports becomes law this year - and if the Deputy’s case does go before a grand jury - the Deputy would not be allowed inside the grand jury room at all, as he would under current law, except during the time that he testifies, if he chooses to speak.

So the Deputy would possibly not have as much power to influence the grand jury, to keep from being indicted.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rich Golick, (R), Smyrna, emphasized that law enforcement officers would still have the right to testify before the grand jury if they choose, but they’d be opening themselves up to cross examination.

“If they’re going to go ahead and exercise that right, then they’re going to be subject to questioning by the prosecutor and, of course, by members of the grand jury, like any other witness,” Golick said.  “I think what it does is it preserves the integrity of the process that the grand jury goes through during a very difficult process.”

The bill also would require a court reporter to be present, to record every word of testimony.  And if a grand jury declines to prosecute an officer involved in a controversial shooting, the grand jury would be required to issue a report detailing all of the evidence and testimony, as a way of explaining the decision.  Fortner says the court reporter's transcripts could then be made public.

Golick said that, in general, the law enforcement community supports the bill.

"There's been a recognition, I believe, on the part of law enforcement, to their credit, that something had to change," Golick said Thursday.  "We want the police officer to continue to have the right to testify before a grand jury," but as a witness, not as a participant in the proceedings.

Fortner said these proposed changes to grand jury proceedings that he helped write into the bill would “bring more credibility and transparency to the investigations, so the public can trust the process.”

Regardless of whether the bill becomes law this year, Fortner said he will review every detail of the GBI investigation of the shooting case and continue his own investigation.  He said the case involves a lot of complex evidence and testimony that will figure into his decision on whether to present it to a grand jury.

"There's a lot to this particular case," Fortner said.  "We may want to intervew the witnesses, law enforcement, bystanders, family members.  We will go over all of the physical evidence.... We owe it to the Daniels family, and to the sheriff’s office, and to the community, to get all the facts and proceed accordingly."

And as it is under current law, grand jurors in Georgia rarely indict the officers who have been sitting next to them during the proceedings, listening to the cases against those very officers.

All of that could change in Georgia in the next few months - just as the district attorney is making a decision in this Deputy’s case.

The bill is now in the Senate, and if it passes, it would be up to the governor to decide whether to sign it into law.