What Is a Grand Jury?
A grand jury is a large group of citizens who serve the prosecutor, not the court. The grand jury helps the prosecutor to determine if there is enough evidence to reasonably determine that the defendant committed the crime. It will help them decide how to charge the defendant and if they want to take the case to trial.
What Are the Differences Between a Grand Jury and a Trial Jury
The trial jury is the one you may be well aware of. They are a group of randomly selected citizens who listen to the court proceedings and decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charges they face. They will serve as jury for the entirety of the case.
Members of the grand jury are randomly selected, though, because they serve for 1.5 – 3 years, they are often filled with retired citizens or ones that otherwise do not work. They will weigh in on a number of cases during that time. The grand jury is comprised of up to 23 people, and they have greater functionality than a trial jury. For example, the grand jury can ask for sworn testimony from witnesses and more documentary evidence. They will review this evidence and tell the prosecutor if they believe there is enough evidence to show that the defendant committed the offense.
What Is a Grand Jury Indictment?
The court proceeding with the grand jury is called a grand jury indictment. The grand jury indictment is a confidential proceeding so that it does not affect the outcome of the trial or ruin the reputation of the defendant if they are not guilty. The only people present at a grand jury indictment are:
- Court reporter
- Grand jury members
The person who administers the proceeding is the grand jury foreperson. They will call the witnesses, keeping track of evidence, and asks for additional information and evidence. In some cases, the grand jury foreperson may also ask the witness questions if they wish. The prosecutor is the only attorney present at the grand jury indictment; none of the witnesses can have their attorney present. There is also no audience, and the witnesses must leave once they have given their testimony. Witnesses are sworn in just like in a trial.
The grand jury indictment is a secret proceeding so that the defendant is not aware of the charges being brought against them and therefore will not skip town. It also allows the witnesses to be open and honest when presenting their evidence and for the grand jury to make objective decisions without the worry of what other people will think of their decisions. Additionally, it prevents the defendant or their associates from tampering with the witnesses as they are not aware of the grand jury indictment.
How Often Do The Grand Jury Vote For Indictment?
The rate of indictment is very high, between 95 and 99%. It is believed that this is because the prosecutor is the only attorney present, and the grand jury do not benefit from cross-examination and the guidance of a judge. The prosecutor is able to present the evidence they want to show and question witnesses to elicit the information that shows the defendant to be guilty.
If the grand jury does not vote for indictment, then the prosecutor can still take the case to trial as the grand jury decision is not binding. The grand jury hearing is just a formality to allow the prosecutor to see how the trial jury may see the case.
It is worth noting that the grand jury does not need to vote unanimously, just reach a majority vote. If the grand jury reaches a majority vote for indictment, then the prosecutor will take the case to trial.
What Evidence Does the Grand Jury Examine?
The grand jury will see evidence that the prosecutor presents and then can ask for additional evidence, even issuing subpoenas if necessary to obtain it. The prosecutor must work with the grand jury to help them to view all of the evidence they request. In a grand jury hearing, the court rules of evidence do not apply, so the grand jury might hear hearsay in some witness testimony and examine evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible or quickly dismissed by the defense attorney. At the beginning of the grand jury hearing, the prosecutor will explain the law so the grand jury can understand why they are seeking the charges.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the prosecutor can present biased evidence, meaning that the grand jury may not see evidence of the defendant’s innocence. This is one of the reasons why the indictment rate is so high. California requires the prosecutors to present evidence of the defendant’s innocence if they are aware of its existence.
What Is the Difference Between a Preliminary Hearing and a Grand Jury Hearing?
A preliminary hearing allows a judge to hear the prosecutor’s arguments for the charges and the defense attorney’s arguments against the charges. The judge will then make a decision on the legal merits of the case and if they will allow it to go to trial. The rules of evidence are much looser in a preliminary hearing like they are in a grand jury hearing.
Unlike a grand jury hearing, the preliminary hearing is not confidential, and therefore it is often not a good option for cases of public interest or cases where confidentiality is required to protect the identity of undercover agents or the reputation of public officials. Other reasons that a prosecutor may choose a grand jury hearing rather than a preliminary hearing is that waiting times are much longer for preliminary hearings, the prosecutor or DA may want to test a weak case and gauge the reaction of the community, and to determine the strength of the witness testimony.
Grand Juries in California
California has very different rules from other states for its grand jury hearings. For starters, the California grand jury hears civil cases far more frequently than it hears criminal cases. Thus, they function more like a community watchdog than an investigative body.