New bill will require grand jury testimony in Oregon to be audio - KPTV - FOX 12

New bill will require grand jury testimony in Oregon to be audio recorded

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New legislation will require all grand jury testimony in Oregon to be audio recorded for the first time. Currently, grand jury notes are handwritten and often incomplete.

This change is meant to add a layer of accountability in the courtroom.

Most felony cases in Oregon go through a grand jury process. A private meeting where prosecutors present evidence to seven jurors, who listen to witness testimony and determine if it's all enough to charge someone with a crime. The defense is excluded from these proceedings and there's no verbatim record preserved of what happened.

Senate Bill 505 changes that by requiring all grand jury testimony to be audio recorded, including testimony about police shootings.

"This is a very significant systematic change for Oregon," said Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill. "I think the public is yearning for more transparency in the grand jury practice."

Multnomah County is one of three counties in Oregon required to make the switch first, beginning in March. Though, Underhill is proposing more immediate changes in the name of transparency.

In a letter to Presiding Judge Nan Waller he outlined a plan to now present most felony cases to preliminary hearings, which are held in open court in front of a judge.

"There's a perception, or at least the belief by some that we may resolve some cases sooner. In open court, the defendant will be there so they can see the evidence right away, first hand," said Underhill.

It's a plan he wants to roll out in phases beginning in November.

Based on case counts of years past Underhill estimates he'll send roughly 3,000 felony cases in 2018 to preliminary hearings.

Sensitive cases involving children, or abuse victims who may not feel comfortable testifying in open court, he'll still send to grand jury. But, for the first time ever their testimony will be recorded.

"There's a lot of concern by myself and by others on knowing what will happen to this recording," he added.

For those reasons, Underhill said the public will not be allowed to request those recordings and in some cases a protection order may be filed to prevent the release of transcripts.

"There can be a misuse of this material and we want to reduce, or eliminate the misuse of that material" said Underhill. "These are vulnerable moments by regular people who are victims of a crime.  We want to do right by them, and that's what we will try to do."

This major shift in how the county is handling felony cases will undoubtedly be costly.

Preliminary hearings tie up more resources and are therefore more expensive. Some of that cost will be covered by the nearly $10 million in state funding lawmakers set aside for changes brought on by Senate Bill 505.

"I do worry about cost implications, they're significant," said Underhill. "When you look at the entire state moving the direction we're talking about, it's a big deal and it's going to be very expensive."

Underhill hopes some of those upfront costs will be offset by added efficiency in court proceedings, though only time will tell.

"That's something we will be watching and learning from, we hope others will be watching and learning as well," said Underhill.

Implementation of grand jury recordings begin in March for Multnomah, Deschutes and Jackson counties. All other counties will be required to make the switch in 2019.

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