People are often confused about the meaning and function of a grand jury in our legal system. A grand jury is a legal body comprised of a group of citizens or laypeople. They determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges to trial. Their job is to investigate possible criminal activity. The grand jury is presented with an accusation and supporting evidence by the prosecutor. The grand jury then decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal trial. Grand juries play a major role in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Early colonists brought the idea to the United States from England. Here in the U.S., the legal foundation for grand juries is found in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Grand juries are tools used as part of a criminal procedure to bring an indictment against a defendant. Today they are usually used in serious felony cases. However, they’re not always required and in some cases not even used. In addition to considering whether individuals may have committed a crime, a grand jury can also be used by a prosecutor as an investigative device to force witnesses to testify or turn over documents.
Approximately half of U.S. states recognize grand juries as a procedure in state criminal charges. Only North Carolina and Georgia included the right to a grand jury in their first state constitutions, but other state legislatures later passed laws authorizing grand juries. The importance and usage of grand juries vary. States that do not use grand juries instead use preliminary hearings for felony cases. Rather than instead of impaneling a grand jury, a criminal complaint would be filed, listing the charges and facts of the case. After filing, the complaint would be reviewed by a judge in a preliminary hearing. In 2018 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court changed the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The rules now provide that instead of presenting live testimony at a preliminary hearing, prosecutors may proceed by a grand jury. This is often done in cases where there is a risk of witness intimidation. Grand jury cases usually are cases of violent crimes.
A regular jury decides the facts in trial cases. A grand jury is used to decide whether probable cause exists to support criminal charges. Probable cause means that there are reasonable grounds for believing that an accusation is well-founded. Trial juries are given evidence by the prosecution and the defense. The accused is present in court and has a right to a defense attorney. In a criminal case, the trial jury must decide whether someone is guilty or innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest burden of proof in the legal system.
A grand jury consists of 12 to 23 jurors, charged with investigating possible criminal conduct. Grand juries are used by federal, state, and county prosecutors to determine whether there is probable cause to support criminal charges.
Like trial jurors, grand jurors are chosen from a random pool of ordinary citizens. In a federal grand jury case, all U.S. citizens who are legal adults and who live in the federal court’s jurisdiction are eligible. Other requirements include adequate fluency in English. A juror must be mentally and physically able to render satisfactory jury service. Jurors must never have been convicted of a felony (unless the person’s civil rights were restored) and must not be currently charged with a felony. The court then randomly chooses candidates for the grand jury from this pool. Grand jurors are expected to serve anywhere from a month to a year on average. In most cases, it’s a few months. During that time, they usually sit a few days a week.
Once the grand jury is impaneled, the prosecutor has the power to subpoena witness testimony and other documentation. During the proceedings prosecutors present evidence, including witnesses, documents, and photos. Court officers and grand jury clerks are there, but no judge is present. Neither the accused nor the attorney for the accused has a legal right to testify. However, in most cases, the accused has an opportunity to testify, but the accused will only be questioned by the prosecutor. However, grand jurors can submit questions to the prosecutor for the witnesses. When the evidence is concluded, the prosecutor will read legal instructions to the jurors. The jurors then have the power to vote an indictment if they believe a crime has been committed. The prosecutor must have established that probable cause exists to support criminal charges against the accused person.
Felony cases require a determination of probable cause that a crime has been committed in order for a case to move forward. To make this determination, there must be some evidence of each element of the offense. In some cases, this is done at a preliminary hearing, in others, a grand jury.
Grand jury proceedings are required to be secret. Therefore, the public has no right to know who was subpoenaed or what documents are reviewed. The secrecy helps to encourage witnesses to come forward and to allow the jurors to make decisions without the threat of reprisal. The requirement of secrecy also means, however, that the defendant does not know what evidence is being considered. There is a risk that the prosecutor may choose to withhold evidence that would prove favorable to the defendant.
The grand jury has been a fundamental part of the United States legal system since the nation was founded. If you are facing a criminal charge, it is important to understand that a grand jury has no power to convict someone of a crime—they can only issue an indictment. Michael J. Skinner and the attorneys at Skinner Law Firm are experienced in handling criminal defense matters. If you have questions, need legal assistance, or wish to schedule a free consultation, contact Skinner Law Firm online or call (610) 436-1410.