Can grand juries serve as check on prosecutorial overreach? Law profs offer ideas

The suicide of Internet “hactivist” Aaron Swartz is shining a light on proposals to rein in prosecutors through more powerful grand juries.

Swartz took his life as he was awaiting a felony trial for downloading scholarly papers, leading to criticism that the U.S. Attorney’s stance in the case amounted to bullying.

Vanishing jury trials have increased the importance of charging decisions by prosecutors who obtain convictions through plea bargains, the Boston Globe notes. Several law professors are proposing grand jury reforms that could serve as a counterweight. Among them:

• Give suspects the right to testify at grand jury hearings, and give lawyers the right to present exonerating evidence. Those procedures are allowed in only four states among the 19 states where grand juries are used to return felony indictments.

• Expand the use of grand juries so they are used to weigh fairness in a wider variety of cases, not just felonies.

• Create a new kind of jury to oversee plea bargaining.

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