TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A bill before the Kansas Legislature would allow changes in the process that allows citizens to petition for grand juries in cases where they believe prosecutors are not pursuing wrongdoing.
Supporters of the bill, which has been approved by the Kansas House and awaits action in the Senate, say prosecutors can manipulate the process and have effectively neutered the effectiveness of citizen grand juries, The Kansas City Star reported Monday. Critics say the changes would make the justice system more vulnerable to politics.
Kansas is one of six states that allow grand juries by petition. The law was rarely used until the last decade, when it has been directed mostly at abortion clinics and supposed pornography. Citizens can call a grand jury after collecting signatures equivalent to 2 percent of votes cast in a county in the last gubernatorial election, plus 100.
However, prosecutors are not required to call witnesses and critics say that has made the process impotent.
The grand jury has "gradually been emasculated and turned into a tool of the government prosecutor," said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who supports changing the law.
The bill would require anyone filing a petition to be the first to address the grand jury. It also would allow anybody to file a written request with prosecutors or the grand jury foreman to testify before the grand jury.
The Kansas County & District Attorneys Association argues that the bill would allow special-interest groups to "micromanage" and politicize the grand jury process by letting petitioners impose themselves on the grand jury. Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said it would compromise the ideal that grand jury proceedings are supposed to allow jurors to make informed and objective decisions on whether a crime was committed.
"We feel there are provisions within this bill that allow individuals or groups of people to influence the grand jury, which we think is inappropriate," Howe said. "You're taking away the authority of the grand jury to make its own decision."
Phillip Cosby, who has been involved in seven grand jury petitions, said prosecutors manipulate the grand juries to thwart citizen concerns.
"It's a watchdog. It's supposed to be the people's court," said Cosby, director of the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri. "We've lost that."
Kansans for Life contends citizen grand juries are the last resort of abortion opponents who believe prosecutors are ignoring "government corruption on the abortion issue."
They say past state leaders did not respond to complaints that Dr. George Tiller was conducting late-term abortions and about a death at his clinic. Two citizen-initiated grand juries were convened in Wichita to investigate Tiller but no indictments were returned. Tiller was murdered at his church in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist.
"Our members have been dismayed at not only the results, but the way the process was manipulated," said Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director for Kansans for Life.