Grand Jury: How does it work?
The grand jury plays a crucial role in the judicial system. The grand jury does not prosecute or punish the criminal; rather the grand jury is meant to work with prosecutors to determine whether formal criminal charges or indictment should be brought upon the potential defendant. This system is typically reserved for felonies and is one of the first procedures within the criminal trial if the prosecution decides to use it. The difference between a grand jury and a regular jury is that a grand jury consists of 12 to 23 people and is meant to investigate criminal conduct. Federal, state, and county prosecutors will use grand juries to decide whether probable cause exists to support criminal charges. A regular jury, also known as a petit jury consists of 6 to 12 people. This jury listens to trials and decides fact from fiction. The judge decides the law. In criminal cases, the petit jury decides whether the prosecution has proved his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the petit jury decides by a preponderance of evidence (which means 51%).
Grand Jury vs. Preliminary Hearings
Every state in the United States has provisions within their laws that allow prosecutors to use grand juries. Nearly half of the country does not use grand juries, rather instead, prosecutors use a process known as preliminary hearings. Similar to grand juries, the purpose of preliminary hearings is meant for the judge to decide whether there is enough evidence and probable cause to convince the jury that the defendant has committed the crime. This process will force the defendant to attend a formal trial. Preliminary hearings’ are generally open to the public and involve a judge and lawyers. However, grand jury hearings are closed to everyone except the defendant, prosecutor, court reporter, and grand jury. Another difference between preliminary hearings and a grand jury is that it is by requirement that a defendant requests a preliminary hearing, with the possibility that the court may decline the request.
Grand Jury Proceedings
Unlike the normal courtroom proceedings, grand jury proceedings tend to be more relaxed in nature. The only people in the courtroom present will be the defendant, one prosecutor, court reporter, and grand jury. The prosecutor will take a few moments to explain the law to the grand jury as well as help gather and present supporting evidence and listen to testimony. Unlike a regular courtroom where evidence and testimony must adhere to strict guidelines, a grand jury has a much higher power that allows them to view and hear almost any evidence they would like. Grand juries retain strict confidence which allows witnesses to freely speak without fear or hesitation as well as protecting the defendants’ reputation in case a jury decides to not indict the individual. Everyone in the courtroom is sworn to secrecy except the witness. The jurors, prosecutor, court reporter, and grand jury are not allowed to speak of the case outside of the courtroom. Only the witness is allowed to speak of the case.
A grand jury does not need a unanimous decision from the full jury body to indict a defendant. However, there must be a super-majority agreement of either 2/3 or 3/4 depending on the jurisdiction to indict a defendant. If a grand jury decides not to indict, a prosecutor may still choose to still indict the individual if he or she feels there is strong enough evidence to present the case to the courts. Typically, a grand jury is an excellent way for prosecutors to determine whether or not the case is strong enough to continue to trial. If the grand jury ultimately decides to indict the defendant, the trial will begin at a much faster rate. This is because, without a grand jury indictment, the prosecutor must prove to the judge he or she has provided strong evidence against the case. With the grand jury indictment, the prosecutor can eliminate that step and proceed directly to trial.