Criminal Law

What Is A Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a group of people who decide whether there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime. The federal government requires the use of a grand jury if prosecutors bring felony charges against someone. Not all states use grand juries in the same way. Prosecutors present their case to the grand jury to see whether an indictment should be brought against a defendant.

Read on to learn more about how a grand jury works and how it's different from other trial proceedings.

Grand Jury Proceedings

A grand jury proceeding is a process whereby the prosecutor presents evidence to the grand jury. The jury then decides whether there is enough evidence to establish that the defendant should face criminal charges. Here, the prosecutor will present evidence and call witnesses or suspects to testify. Both the jurors and the prosecutor can ask questions of the witnesses.

The proceeding is less adversarial, as the accused or the defense attorneys will not be present. It is not open to the public, and proceedings are conducted in secrecy. This ensures witnesses can speak freely and that the defendant's reputation is protected in case there is no indictment.

What Happens After a Grand Jury Proceeding?

After the grand jury hears all the evidence, it will either recommend to "indict" or issue a "no bill." A no bill happens when the jurors recommend against filing charges. If the jury issues a no bill, then any charges filed will be dismissed. A no bill doesn't stop a judge from ordering the matter to go to a grand jury again, however.

You should also note, civil actions are also still possible even if there is no indictment. For example, that means alleged victims can still sue you even if you do not face criminal charges for causing a car accident with injuries.

How Is the Grand Jury Selected?

Jurors are randomly selected from the same group as a trial jury, from what the state calls "a fair cross-section" of qualified residents in a particular county. The state usually gets the list of people from the DMV and voter registration lists. If you are called for jury duty, you could serve on either one.

Role of the Grand Jury

A grand jury serves as a check on the prosecutor's power by protecting people from baseless or malicious prosecution. Generally, the grand jury has two main functions:

  • Investigation: The grand jury members have the power to investigate by subpoenaing witnesses and other documents.
  • Determining whether charges should be brought: After analyzing the evidence, the grand jury makes the initial determination on whether there is probable cause to bring charges against the defendant.

Difference Between a Grand Jury and Trial Jury

Although both juries consist of the same people who are called for jury duty, they have distinct differences. Some of the differences between a grand jury and a trial jury (petit jury) include:

  • A trial jury usually consists of six to 12 people, while a grand jury consists of 12 to 23 people.
  • A trial jury determines whether the accused committed the crime, while a grand jury only investigates whether there is probable cause to bring charges.
  • Grand jurors serve for a longer period than trial jurors, ranging from one month to one year.

Preliminary Hearing vs. Grand Jury

Both a preliminary hearing and a grand jury are meant to determine whether there is enough evidence to indict someone. However, unlike a grand jury, a preliminary hearing involves a judge and attorneys from both sides. A preliminary hearing is also open to the public. Another difference is that, in a preliminary hearing, a prosecutor must convince the judge, instead of the jury, that they have enough evidence to convict.

Grand Jury Criticisms

Originally, the grand jury was designed to shield innocent citizens from unwarranted charges. It was also intended to allow the public and peers to be part of the process of holding someone accountable for their criminal acts. However, this process has received multiple criticisms including:

  • Prosecutor dominance: Prosecutors may sway the jury by laying the narrative they want in front of a grand jury.
  • Legal knowledge of the jurors: Most jurors have to rely on the prosecutor to explain the law and apply it to the case at hand.
  • No due process right for the accused and witnesses: The accused does not enjoy all their due process rights, as a prosecutor has broad powers when introducing evidence. Witnesses are also at a disadvantage because they cannot have an attorney with them and they cannot refuse to testify.

Seek Legal Help If You Are Subject to a Grand Jury Investigation

A grand jury can use different ways to investigate criminal behavior. They can ask individuals to testify or present documents. If you learn you are the subject of a grand jury investigation, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Although an attorney can't accompany you in the jury room, they can assist you in other ways, including consulting with you outside of the grand jury room. If a grand jury is preparing an indictment against you, your attorney can start building a case sooner.