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Smith County group pushes for "common law" grand jury

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TYLER (KYTX) - A Smith County group held what it called an open election Thursday night.  On the ballot: a change to how crimes get prosecuted.

The group was pushing for what's called a "common law" grand jury.

"It's almost to the point where the state has set itself up as an enemy to the people," Smith County resident Richard said.

In a nod to traditions of jury anonymity, Richard did not give his last name. But he was not shy about wanting to cut out the middle man in the criminal justice system.

"This is the way the grand jury should function and we're just trying to follow that model," he said.

Richard and others want to take over the grand jury room at the Smith County courthouse. Their ammunition is a Supreme Court opinion that classifies grand juries as "separate from the courts" and under the "common law."

Currently a district judge will appoint a group of grand jury commissioners every so often. Those commissioners are told about qualifications for grand jury duty. Then they sit down and nominate what's called a grand jury "array" of up to 40 people.

The judge handles disqualifications and exemptions and the first twelve who survive the process serve six month terms.

"As a common law grand jury, we'd like to fulfill that role and also hold the same state accountable to the same laws they're supposed to follow," Richard said.

Supporters of common law grand juries believe people should control what cases get presented and whether they make it to a courtroom.

Smith County 114th District Judge Christi Kennedy said the system has worked for years and it works that way for a reason.

"All of the safeguards that are in place as far as the discreet roles of the police, the district attorney's office and the grand jury protect people from being prosecuted or presented for prosecution unfairly," Judge Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she feared those protections would disappear with the removal of checks and balances inherent in the current system.

"I think there would be a danger in it, but there's also no statutory authorization for it," she said.

Richard said he plans to file notarized results of Thursday's vote with the county clerk. It's not clear what happens after that, as no specific state statute covers the formation of a common law grand jury.

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