SAN ANTONIO — Shortly after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, so too came social unrest sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor -- both at the hands of law enforcement officers.
The upheaval of day-to-day operations marked a natural starting point for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office to retool its approach to the grand jury process, which has long been characterized as secret.
When a law enforcement officer shoots someone in the line of duty in Bexar County, the law enforcement agency itself first investigates the shooting before it's handed off to the Bexar County District Attorney's Office for review. From there, an investigator and prosecutor from the office further collect evidence relating to the shooting, officials said. In some cases, they will go back and interview witnesses, ultimately preparing a case for presentation to a grand jury.
The grand jury, comprised of at least nine people, ultimately decides whether the officer or officers who fired the shots should be charged. Though, unlike open court, the grand jury process is secret by law.
"The law doesn't allow the grand jury process to be transparent," said Christian Henricksen, the chief of litigation for the Bexar County District Attorney's Office.
Across the country, the process has come under renewed scrutiny as the public is often left in the dark as to why a case did not result in criminal charges.
From Botham Jean in Dallas, to Charles Roundtree in San Antonio, attorney Daryl Washington has walked several families through the process in recent years. He said the law on grand juries needs to be reformed.
"It needs to be more transparent because without that, there is no way, honestly, to hold a district attorney accountable for his or her actions," Washington said. "If we were able to be in there and observing what's going on, I think it would give the public just a little more confidence to know that, 'Hey, the DA put on a strong presentation before the grand jury. The grand jury made its decision.'"
Henricksen doesn't disagree.
"Mr. Washington has a very good point, though, which is: Prosecutors should not hide behind grand juries," he said. "The fact that the grand jury process is secret should not be an excuse for prosecutors to not be transparent with what happens.
"I think it's important that the public understands a case and what the law is and how it's applied and what it means when a grand jury either chooses to indict or chooses not to indict."
Across the country, it's rare an officer will be indicted for shooting an individual while on the job. Henricksen said it's why the office has not presented officer-involved shooting cases to a grand jury in recent months.
"We're trying to make sure that before a case goes in front of a grand jury, again, where a no-bill might happen, that we are prepared to be transparent and to talk about that very clearly so that we can minimize some of the issues that we've had that came from a lack of transparency," Henricksen said.
He said the agency is working on creating a synopsis of the case for instances in which an officer is not indicted. The synopsis, Henricksen said, would state what the case is about, along with the law so the public can be better informed about what's known about the case. Though, specifics still remain under discussion.
Under District Attorney Joe Gonzales, the office brings all cases in which an officer has fatally shot an individual before a grand jury. Unlike other crimes, which are presented to a grand jury only when the office believes a crime was committed, the office presents all officer-involved shooting cases, even if they believe the shooting is justified.
Henricksen said he sees how the process could be one sided, confirming that, should a grand jury ask the prosecutor their thoughts on the case, the prosecutor will share whether the office believes the shooting was justified.
Washington said it's problematic that many district attorney's offices are tasked with investigating officers whom they rely on to secure convictions in other cases, but said steps toward transparency will help bring light to a process where the public is often left in the dark.
"You want the facts," Washington explained. "It's just like a trial. You want to know what documents are reviewed, witness statements I took into consideration. What evidence did I actually have in my possession? Did we do some type of reconstruction with an expert?"
Henricksen said the office is also looking at how their prosecutors and investigators can be as independent as possible of the law enforcement agencies which they are tasked to investigate. He stressed that they are focused on being transparent with the process where they can moving forward.
"If we don't explain what we're doing and why we're doing it -- we can't expect them to just trust us," Henricksen said. "People need to understand what we're doing and why we're doing it so that they can make up their own mind. If we don't take the time to explain ourselves, then we can't complain when people think that we're making a bad decision. We have to be able to explain ourselves and we're trying to do our best to be prepared to do that."