What is a Grand Jury?
A grand jury is a court-empaneled group responsible for determining whether there is adequate evidence for criminal charges to be brought against an individual. Unlike a trial jury, grand juries are not used to determine guilt or innocence but rather to decide if there is probable cause to charge someone with a crime and to proceed with a trial. They act as a check and balance within the criminal justice system.
A grand jury may consist of anywhere from 16 to 23 people; the length of a grand jury varies, and the deliberations are closed to the public. The grand jury may review evidence and hear testimonies from witnesses to determine whether there is enough evidence to pursue a criminal case. They can issue subpoenas to bring witnesses before them and require the production of documents.
Some jurisdictions require that all felonies must proceed by grand jury indictment unless a defendant waives the right to proceed by indictment. In other jurisdictions, grand juries hear cases in high-profile matters or those involving complex legal issues. Some jurisdictions require a grand jury for certain cases, such as those involving capital offenses. The purpose of a grand jury is to protect individuals from unjustified prosecution by ensuring sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge. It is a vital component of the legal system, designed to prevent the government from unjustly accusing and prosecuting individuals without proper evidence.
How Does a Grand Jury Function?
The grand jury is typically composed of citizens selected from the area of the court’s venue and empaneled to serve for a specific period. During a grand jury proceeding, a prosecutor presents the case to the grand jurors, providing them with information and evidence gathered in the investigation. The grand jurors then review the evidence and determine whether there is probable cause to bring an indictment.
Grand Jury Proceeding
A grand jury proceeding is conducted in secrecy, without the target’s presence, often without the target even being aware of the grand jury activity. The grand jury hears the evidence presented by the prosecution and decides whether it is sufficient to proceed with a criminal trial. A majority vote typically makes their decision, and if they find probable cause, an indictment is issued, leading to the formal charging of the accused.
Grand Jury Indictment
When a grand jury indicts someone, the grand jurors have found sufficient evidence to believe that the individual has committed a crime. A grand jury indictment is a formal accusation that initiates the legal process against the defendant. If a majority of the jurors agree that sufficient evidence supports the charges, the grand jury votes for an indictment. This document is the official charging instrument. It alleges the specific charges and is confidential until the accused is arrested or appears in court.
Once indicted, the defendant is legally regarded as being charged with the crimes listed in the indictment. This initiates the next phases of the legal process, which include arraignment, pre-trial motions, and trial. It is important to note that an indictment does not equate to a conviction or guilt, as the defendant is still presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. Moreover, an indictment is no evidence of guilt.
The indictment is a powerful tool in the legal system, as it initiates the criminal process and allows the case to move forward in the court system. It is important to note that the grand jurors have a level of independence in their decision-making process and, in most jurisdictions, are not bound by the rules of evidence.
Grand jurors rely on their judgment and assessment of the facts and law as presented by the grand jury advisor, the prosecutor. If the grand jury brings an indictment against the defendant, that defendant is formally charged and proceeds to trial. However, if the grand jury does not find enough evidence to indict, the case may be dismissed, or the prosecutor may continue to investigate and present the case to a new grand jury later. How this takes place varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Differences between a Preliminary Hearing and a Grand Jury Proceeding
Both a preliminary hearing and a grand jury play important roles in a criminal case. The grand jury process, typically overseen by prosecutors, determines whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial. A grand jury consists of members meeting in a grand jury room, where they listen to testimony and review evidence presented by the prosecution.
Through grand jury subpoenas, witnesses and individuals possessing important documents are called to testify. In contrast, a preliminary hearing is an initial step in the criminal law process, typically held in state cases after the arrest of a defendant. During a preliminary hearing, a judge determines if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. If the judge finds sufficient evidence, the case is bound to a trial court. Unlike in a grand jury, no jury votes or indictments are issued during or after a preliminary hearing.
Pros and Cons of Grand Jury
While the grand jury provides important protections, it also presents challenges and concerns within the criminal justice system.
One advantage of the grand jury is its ability to safeguard against unwarranted felony charges. The grand jury theoretically checks the prosecutor’s power, ensuring sufficient evidence before a criminal trial disrupts an individual’s life. Additionally, the grand jury protects individuals’ rights by ensuring they cannot be held for trial without probable cause.
Conversely, the grand jury receives criticism for its secrecy and lack of transparency. The proceedings are not open to the public, and witnesses are often subpoenaed to testify without their own representation present. Moreover, there is a danger of a biased and one-sided presentation of evidence, rendering the grand jury a prosecutor’s rubber stamp rather than an independent evaluator of probable cause.
Furthermore, the grand jury process can be time-consuming and costly. It requires assembling a panel of citizens and going through the evidence, which can extend the length of a case and increase the financial burden on the parties involved.
Testifying Before the Grand Jury
Testifying before a grand jury can be a daunting experience. As a witness, you may be called to give sworn testimony about what you know or have witnessed. The process is intimidating because it is formal and occurs in a secret setting. Answering questions truthfully and accurately is crucial, as providing false information can result in serious legal consequences.
Additionally, witnesses are generally not represented by their legal counsel. This is true in most jurisdictions but not all of them. However, witnesses may consult with counsel before and during grand jury testimony.
How Can an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Help?
Since the grand jury is focused on hearing the prosecution’s side, the defendant does not have representation during the proceedings. However, an experienced criminal defense lawyer is still invaluable for individuals suspecting they are a grand jury investigation target and also potentially for those subpoenaed to testify.
The defense lawyer can guide his or her client through the questioning process, ensuring rights are protected. The attorney can challenge the evidence presented by the prosecution, identify any procedural errors, and negotiate potential plea agreements if necessary. By leveraging their experience and understanding of the law, a defense lawyer can increase the chances of a favorable outcome for their clients and minimize the potential consequences of the charges they are facing. Simply, an experienced criminal defense attorney can often influence the prosecutor’s decision to seek an indictment. If possible, preventing the bringing of charges is much less difficult than obtaining the dismissal of an indictment after the grand jury has filed charges.
If you’re involved in a criminal case that is going to a grand jury, the Serafini Law Firm can work with you to achieve the most favorable outcome.
Our law firm currently offers a range of legal services to the following cities and states: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Contact us at (754) 223-4718 for a free consultation.