Law change could limit special treatment for officers after Channel 2 investigation

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

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ATLANTA - Georgia law enforcement officers could lose some of the special privileges they've been getting when a grand jury hears cases of deadly force.  

The move comes after a series of Channel 2 Action News - Atlanta Journal Constitution investigations exposed flaws in the current law, which some prosecutors say makes it nearly impossible to indict an officer.

Now, a proposed law change is being spearheaded by Georgia's Prosecuting Attorney's Council.

"There's no doubt that some of the cases that have been in the news lately have drawn more public attention to it," said Chuck Spahos, the state agency's Executive Director.

One of those cases was the high profile shooting of Ariston Waiters, an unarmed teenager who had committed no crime but was shot in the back by a Union City Police officer.

The officer had arrived to break up a neighborhood fight, and spotted Waiters running from the area.  

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard thought the officer's actions warranted a murder charge and twice tried to indict him. But both grand juries voted not to do so, after hearing the officer's tearful account of what happened. He claimed the teen tried to reach up from the ground and grab the officer's gun.

Georgia is the only state that allows officers facing possible indictment to sit in on the entire grand jury process, hear all the witnesses and evidence against them, and then make a closing statement that cannot be questioned or challenged by prosecutors or grand jurors.

"Certainly that environment creates the ability to make statements that you know you don't have to answer for," said Spahos.

Last week, a Channel 2 Action News - Atlanta Journal Constitution investigation revealed the results of a detailed eight-month investigation during which reporters compiled the details and judicial outcomes of Georgia's 171 deadly police shootings in the past five years.

Not one of those cases resulted in a trial.

Several prosecutors and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation director said overwhelmingly, most officer shootings are justified, but in the small percentage of questionable cases, Georgia's unique grand jury law could be impeding justice.

"The process itself inside that room has got to be above question," said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna.

Golick chairs the House Judiciary Committee that would change the law and now plans to champion that effort.

"This is the first time that I've sensed a push coming and then when you combine that with real-world examples of how the process has been undermined, that's a situation that demands us to take a hard look at it," said Golick.

Under the new proposal, officers would be treated like any other grand jury witness.

They would enter the room, make their statement, be cross-examined and then leave the room.

"There's some issues with the integrity of the system when the accused is actually present during the entire presentation of evidence. I don't know how that was originally justified in the law, but we don't believe that it's any longer justified," said Spahos.

The police chiefs' and sheriffs' associations fought attempts to change this law years ago, but prosecutors say the current climate has changed perception.

They're hoping to work with law enforcement to come up with legislation they all can agree on.

There's also a push to have the officers' statements recorded with a transcript, which could become public later to increase the transparency.

The prosecutors and Golick all expressed support for the officers remaining a part of the process, with an absolute right to make a grand jury statement if they so choose.

"Nobody knows what those guys are faced with until you've done that job, 'til you've made those kind of decisions in the dark of night when you're off by yourself in the middle of nowhere," said Spahos, "And the grand jury needs to hear from them if they want to be heard."