WACO, Texas – A Waco police detective has been chosen as the foreman of the 12 people most likely to decide if the bikers in the Waco Twin Peaks shootout get indicted.
The grand jury, composed of 12 grand jurors and two alternates, were sworn in Wednesday by McLennan County District Judge Ralph Strother. At that time, the detective was also appointed as the grand jury foreman.
According to The Waco Tribune-Herald, Detective James Head was wearing his police badge and pistol when he was sworn in. The 26-year veteran is a theft detective assigned to the department's neighborhood services division.
The selection of Head to be on the grand jury - much less to serve as its foreman - has outraged the attorneys of the bikers.
"This has created a whole lot of problems for both sides of the bar in McLennan County, and for anyone one going in front of a grand jury and expecting to get a fair shake out of the grand jury," said Bob Gill, a Fort Worth attorney representing two of the bikers. "This detective is going to know and be familiar with a lot of the people involved in the cases and the facts of a lot those cases. There's an inherent conflict with anything that comes in front of that grand jury, at this point."
The stakes are high: 177 bikers are facing first-degree felony charges of engaging in organized crime. If indicted and convicted, they could get life in prison in the May 17 shootout between the Bandidos and Cossacks motorcycle gangs that left nine dead and 18 injured.
In a phone interview with WFAA News 8, Judge Strother said he sees no problem with the situation. He said Head was selected from 100 people who were summoned.
"We took the first 12 people who were qualified," Strother said. "They weren't hand-picked. It was a completely random process. And a Waco police officer was among those, and so he was seated, just like any other citizen. [...] Suppose if there'd been someone who was a member of a biker club, what do you think kind of criticism we would have received if I said, 'No, no you can't be on the grand jury, sorry.'"
Strother then selected Head to serve as foreman of the grand jury, which will meet twice a month for the next three months.
"He has no more power or authority as presiding grand juror than anybody else does," Strother said, adding that he does not know the detective.
Gill, a retired state district judge, would beg to differ. He said Head will have influence on his fellow grand jurors, even if he recuses himself.
"It's like being the leader of a regular jury or being the boss at work — people look to him for his opinion," Gill said. "People who have no knowledge of the criminal justice system are going to look to him for guidance."
Lawyers for the bikers have a problem with it, even if Head recuses himself. They say he will still have influence on the other grand jurors just by his mere presence.
"He will be the actual and de facto leader in that grand jury," Gill said.
In the interview, Strother implied the new random process was to blame for Head's selection.
A new law goes into effect Sept. 1 mandating random selection of grand jurors. Under the old law, counties could do a random selection or they could use what's known as the "key-man" method, in which judges picked commissioners, who, in turn, picked members of the community as potential grand jurors.
The first 12 qualified people would then be selected to serve on the grand jury – a procedure that critics termed the "pick-a-pal" process.
Even though the new law hasn't gone into effect, Strother said he, the judges, and the district clerk decided to go ahead and implement the procedure.
"In our county, for time memoriam, we have always used the grand jury commission system, which has served us well," he said. "I didn't pick the people to show up for jury service. It was a totally random process, and that's what we get."
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna told the Tribune-Herald, "That's the system. He was chosen totally at random, like the law says."
The Tribune-Herald asked Head if he played a role in the Twin Peaks investigation. His response: "Not really."
Head declined to elaborate.
The detective told the Tribune-Herald that his selection was kind of "unusual."
"The judge is going to be fair," he told the newspaper. "They are not going to let anything underhanded get by up there."
Sgt. Patrick Swanton, a department spokesman, said the department has no involvement in the grand jury selection process and therefore, has no comment on it. He declined to comment on what role if any Head played in the Twin Peaks case.
Strother said if Head did have some part in the Twin Peaks case or any other case, he said he would expect him to recuse himself. Gill said he'd be very surprised if Head didn't play some role in the Twin Peaks case.
"It was all-hands-on-deck when this was going on, in the days and weeks following," Gill said. "Besides, he knows everybody involved in it. I'm sure it's been the top of discussion at the Waco PD for the last couple of months, and even before that, when the local PD and the DPS were sending back-and-forth bulletins about the meetings at Twin Peaks."
Lawyers representing some of the bikers have fiercely accused the Waco Police Department and the district attorney of taking a dragnet-size approach to the case, charging people without probable cause and illegally seizing their property.
One of those attorneys has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of his client, alleging that he was illegally swept up in a police dragnet.
That attorney, Clint Broden, is now under a gag order. He filed an emergency petition with a state appeals court Thursday seeking to have the gag order lifted, so that he can speak out on behalf of his client.
"There is a noxious odor surrounding the investigation by the Waco Police Department and the McLennan County District Attorney's office," Broden wrote in his motion. "This odor continues to waft and intensify with Detective Head serving as the grand jury foreperson over the investigation. [...] Indeed, it would be as if a relative of the defendant was the foreperson of the grand jury."
Initially, $1 million bonds were set on all of the bikers. Many of those bonds have since been released after months of negotiations and bond reduction hearings.
To date, 173 of the 177 bikers have been released from custody.