SALEM – A bill to require audio recordings of Oregon secret grand jury proceedings is headed to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown.
The legislation modernizes the state's more than 150-year-old system of jurors' handwritten notes by requiring county district attorneys to electronically audio record grand jury proceedings and archive the recordings.
"This bill will bring our justice system into the 21st Century, but it's about more than that," said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who had spearheaded similar legislation for several years. The requirement ensures "our criminal justice system remains above all reproach," Prozanski said.
Oregon is the only state in the nation that indicts all felony crimes through a grand jury process, yet doesn't preserve a verbatim record of the testimony, said Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.
Oregon grand juries entail seven jurors who hear from the prosecutor and witnesses and decide whether sufficient evidence exists for an indictment. In some cases, law enforcement officers who investigated the case testify on behalf of the victim. Neither the defendant nor the defense attorney are present in the room.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill with a 21-to-7 vote July 4. The proposal provoked more conflicted emotions in the House, where it passed 34-to-26 on Friday, July 7.
Some lawmakers who voted against the proposal said they strongly support recording grand jury proceedings but oppose a provision in the bill that would prohibit case officers from testifying on behalf of adult victims in front the grand jury.
Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, a former police officer, said the prohibition on case officers testifying for victims would further traumatize victims.
"That's who we should be most concerned about is the victims. The defendant will have their day in court," Barker said.
Standing on the House floor Friday with tears drifting down her cheeks, Rep. Jodi Hack, R-Salem, begged lawmakers to vote down the bill and fix it in the 2018 session to allow case officers to testify on behalf of victims, especially victims of sexual assault.
"That is very personally deep for me," Hack said.
"They have already been victimized, and the idea tha the perpetrator can hear the fear in their voice" is horrifying, she added.
Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, said police shootings of people of color and grand jury decisions not to indict those officers have shaken some communities' trust in law enforcement and the grand jury process.
"I think transparency is a step in the right direction in showing that we want to have more accountability for the injustices that do exist in our communities," Hernandez said.
The requirement will be gradually phased in for the state's 36 counties. The mandate triggers March 1 for Multnomah, Deschutes and Jackson counties, all of which have a population of 150,000 or greater. The state's other 33 counties will have to start the recordings by July 1, 2019.
The bill provides about $10 million for the cost of purchasing electronic recording devices and hiring staff to manage the recordings in the three counties. The Legislative Fiscal Office has noted that there could be significant costs to the state in the 2019-2021 budget as the remaining 33 counties begin the recordings.
Like the existing handwritten notes from the proceedings, the audio recordings will remain confidential. Only prosecutors and defense attorneys will be allowed to have copies. The prosecutor must provide a copy or transcript of the recording to the defense attorney within 10 days after a defendant is arraigned on an indictment. The defense attorney is prohibited from sharing the actual copy of the recording with the defendant and may not disclose personal identifying information about the victim, witnesses or grand jurors to the defendant. The recordings are otherwise confidential. Sect. 3 of bill.
Prosecutors also may request a protection order from the court to redact certain information they believe could put a victim or witness in danger.
Forty-eight states and the federal court system already electronically audio record grand jury testimony.
Oregon and Louisiana are the only two states in the national where lawyers rely on handwritten grand juror notes instead of audio recordings.