PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Attorney General Peter Neronha wants to allow Rhode Island grand juries to issue reports on their investigations even if they don’t lead to indictments, a policy his counterpart in Pennsylvania used last year to publish a searing examination of Catholic Church sex abuse.
Neronha, a Democrat who took office last month, is including the grand-jury measure in the package of 2019 legislative proposals he is submitting to the General Assembly. His other high-priority bills include reforms to drug penalties and new measures on gun safety.
For potential felonies, prosecutors can present investigative information to grand juries, which then decide whether to authorize charges. In Rhode Island, facts and testimony presented to a grand jury cannot be disclosed by anyone other than an individual witness, meaning the information remains sealed unless it leads to a case being prosecuted.
In an interview with WPRI 12, Neronha cited multiple times in recent decades when he thinks Rhode Island would have been better off with a tightly-controlled procedure to publish grand-jury information, emphasizing that the policy would be “used sparingly.”
He recalled then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse being frustrated after a grand jury declined to file charges against the officers who shot and killed off-duty cop Cornel Young Jr. in 2000. Neronha, who was a junior prosecutor in the attorney general’s office at the time, recalled the staff unsuccessfully searching at the time for a way to share more of what they’d learned.
“There’s no mechanism to do it,” he said.
Under Neronha’s proposed bill, a Superior Court judge would have to agree to release of any report on the grand jury’s findings, and anyone named in the report would be given notice in advance so that they could object.
The question of whether the public interest sometimes demands piercing a grand jury’s veil of secrecy was hotly debated in Rhode Island when there were demands for information collected during an investigation of the failed 38 Studios deal. Asked if he would used issued a report on that probe under the proposed policy, Neronha said, “It’s unclear.”
“One of the things I am doing is I’m reviewing what was done in the 38 Studios case — I’m not deep into that yet, though I am doing it,” he said. “But it would depend really on what that review finds. So it’s hard to tell in a vacuum.”
Another key legislative initiative for Neronha was already announced Monday: he proposes downgrading the possession of small amounts of narcotic drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. He argues the change is about “making this distinction between drug dealers, who we should have our focus on … and the people who possess narcotics, small amounts for personal use, [who are] by and large addicted.”
Gun laws are also a focus.
Neronha already joined Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on the first anniversary of the Parkland school shooting to back three major proposals: bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and guns in schools.
In addition, Neronha’s legislative package proposes cracking down on “ghost guns” manufactured with 3D printing or put together with parts, which he said are “even harder to trace than the average gun.” He also wants to crack down on “straw purchasers” who buy firearms for individuals barred from possessing them, and strengthen the rules for safe storage of guns and reporting of lost and stolen weapons.
All those ideas flow from research conducted by the Gun Safety Working Group that the governor convened last year, he said.