Kansas lawmakers eye change to citizen-petitioned grand jury

ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas House will vote next week whether to allow changes to the petition process that allows citizens to convene grand juries in cases where they believe prosecutors aren’t pursuing wrongdoing.

The House debated the bill Thursday and advanced it to final action on a voice vote. The final vote is scheduled for Tuesday. If approved, it would then go to the Senate.

The measure would allow those responsible for calling grand juries to observe while judges give instructions to the jurors, a move that aims to address concerns from some citizens that the secretive grand jury process is being unduly influenced by judges or prosecutors.

Kansas is one of six states that allows citizens to petition for grand juries. The 1887 law was rarely used until about a decade ago, anti-abortion activists began using it to force grand jury investigations of abortion clinics. It has since also been used to also go after adult bookstores.

Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican who chairs the House’s corrections and juvenile justice committee, said the measure would help ensure that the will of those who convene such grand juries is heard.

Rep. Steven Becker, a moderate Buhler Republican, also said he thinks it would improve the grand jury system.

“It is making it less secret,” Becker said.

Abortion rights opponents used the citizen-petitioned grand juries in Wichita twice force Sedgwick County to convene the panel to investigate abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. None of those citizen-petitioned grand juries in 2006 and in 2007 brought criminal charges against Tiller. The same tactic was also used by abortion foes in 2007 to convene a grand jury to investigate Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which also led to no charges.

Lee Thompson, an attorney who represented Tiller before the doctor was killed by an anti-abortion zealot, said grand juries historically were supposed to be independent bodies free of outside influence.

Giving these people — who have their own private agenda — the ability to influence the process is “extremely unfair and would destroy whole concept of a grand jury,” Thompson said.

Phillip Cosby, an anti-pornography activist and lobbyist for the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri, was at the hearing to support of the legislation.

Cosby has repeatedly used the citizen petition process to force investigations of adult bookstores, including one 2012 petition which sought to start a grand jury investigation over a statute of a woman at the Overland Park Arboretum that portrays a woman taking a photo of herself while her breasts are exposed.

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Online:

House bill on citizen-petitioned grand juries: http://bit.ly/1PeDV6T

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Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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