SALEM — The state Senate voted 21-7 Tuesday to require audio recordings of grand jury proceedings.
The bill modernizes the state’s more than 150-year-old handwritten record-keeping process by requiring county district attorneys to electronically audio record grand jury proceedings and maintain and store copies of the recordings.
“This bill will bring our justice system into the 21st century, but it’s about more than that,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who has spearheaded similar legislation for several years. “We’re working on Independence Day right now. July Fourth is a beautiful day, and it’s about freedom and liberty. We have a chance to ensure liberty, justice for all and an opportunity to ensure our criminal justice system remains above all reproach.”
The bill heads for a vote in the House later this week.
The requirement will be gradually phased in for the state’s 36 counties. The mandate triggers in March for Multnomah, Deschutes and Jackson counties, all of which have populations of 150,000 or greater. The state’s other 33 counties will have to start the recordings by July 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.
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.
Prosecutors also may request a protection order from the court to redact certain information they believe could put a victim or witness in danger.
Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said the bill’s main weakness is it disallows hearsay testimony by law enforcement officers on behalf of witnesses. The only exceptions are for people with certain disabilities and minors.
“I really wish we had kept in protections for victims so case officers could testify on their behalf,” Thatcher said. She said she voted against the bill because she felt it was rushed in the waning days of session, which must constitutionally end by Monday.
“I am all for recording grand juries but we need to proceed more cautiously when it comes to the victims,” she said.
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 nation that still rely on handwritten juror notes, rather than audio recordings, as documentation of testimony in front of grand juries.
“I have found that no matter how skilled or how experienced the note taker is, there will be things that are inaccurate or left out inadvertently,” said Prozanski, a municipal prosecutor and former assistant district attorney. “As a felony prosecutor in Lane County I wanted my witnesses in front of the grand jury because I wanted them prepared to be able to testify in public in front of the Circuit Court. This process opens the grand jury process so that we have a clear and accurate record of what witnesses say during the process, without interpretation. It’s fair to prosecutors and the defense.”
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, in a guest column in The Oregonian in June, wrote that he and other prosecutors would likely reserve grand juries for unusual cases if they must be recorded. Prosecutors, he said, would instead conduct preliminary hearings, which he said take more time and could be costly for the state.
“Recording grand juries will have a chilling effect on justice,” Marquis wrote. “What domestic violence victim will be willing to share her story when she knows that a recording of her statement could be handed over to the man who beat her or her children just days earlier? Even the most optimistic among us know how tragically that could end.”
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.