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Oregon Senate Approves Recording Grand Juries

Oregon Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a practicing attorney, told the Senate chamber it was appropriate that a bill to require recordings of grand jury proceedings was up for a vote on Independence Day.

"We are going to be able to make history," Prozanski, D-Eugene, proclaimed on the Senate floor. "We're going to ensure the integrity of our criminal justice system."

Senate Bill 505 would require three counties — Deschutes, Jackson and Multnomah — to begin recording grand jury proceedings starting next March. The rest of the state would follow later.

County prosecutors frequently use grand juries to level charges against criminal defendants. In Oregon, the proceedings are generally kept private, with the only record of testimony being the hand-written notes of a designated juror.

Supporters said the status quo of requiring a single grand juror to take notes of sometimes lengthy testimony was out of date and prone to inaccuracies and personal bias. They point out that all other states make audio recordings of their grand juries, with the exception of Louisiana.

But Oregon legislators have spent years debating a requirement for recording grand juries, always deciding against it. This year, on the senate floor, concerns again surfaced.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, raised a handful of questions mostly focused on costs and the technical knowledge required of grand jurors, who would do the recording.

Prozanski answered the questions and, at one point, seemed to grow impatient with the technical line of inquiry.

"Clearly, this is not rocket science," Prozanski argued. He said it involved pressing a button on a tape recorder or electronic device.

Supportive senators conceded that costs are not entirely clear, because they'll depend on how prosecutors respond. If district attorneys shift toward conducting more preliminary hearings, rather than grand jury proceedings, costs could go up.

Others worried that recording grand juries could scare off witnesses or victims crucial to a prosecutor's case.

"I am all for recording grand juries, I really believe that needs to be done. We do need to come into the 21st century," said Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. "But we need to proceed a little more cautiously when it comes to the victims."

Some expressed reservations, but backed the bill anyway, like Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. He also wanted more protections for victims, but said he was reassured that a bipartisan group would continue working to improve those aspects of the judicial process.

In defending the grand jury recording bill, SB 505, Prozanski conceded that while he felt it was "making history," it also had a limited focus. He said its singular aim was to improve transparency by providing accurate records of grand juries.

“It was not envisioned to rewrite our grand proceedings or our rules of evidence — that’s another issue for another day,” Prozanski said.

Several state senators said the bill was key to improving trust in the judicial system, particularly among communities who have historically questioned the system's impartiality. The bill had the support of the three African-American members of the Oregon Senate: Jackie Winters, R-Salem; Lew Frederick, D-Portland; and James Manning, D-Junction City.

"As a former police officer, I have worked in communities of color for a long time and there is — and continues on — a distrust of our judicial system," Manning said. “We say ‘justice is blind’ and some people say ‘justice is even blinder, when it comes to certain people.’ ... This is a step forward.”

The bill passed 21-7, and next heads to the Oregon House.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting