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What is a Grand Jury?

Updated on August 20, 2014

The Grand Jury

The grand jury is a group of persons, traditionally 12 to 23 in number, that is summoned to receive accusations of crime, hear the state's evidence, investigate wrongdoing, and hand down indictments where they are satisfied a trial ought to be had. In the federal courts, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes a grand jury indictment a prerequisite to a trial for capital, or otherwise infamous crime. In about half the states an indictment is required for the initiation of a felony prosecution. The remaining states, however, allow such prosecutions either by indictment or by information-that is, a written statement by the prosecutor that he has reason to believe that the accused has committed a crime.

Grand jury selection is determined by statute and closely resembles the process employed for selecting petit juries. A defendant may challenge the personal qualifications of individual jurors and may challenge the whole array if there are defects in the mechanics of selection.

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Procedure

The grand jury may initiate its own investigation, employing the subpoena power, to summon witnesses and compel the production of documents, or it may investigate matters brought to its attention by the court or the prosecutor. The latter is the more normal course, with witnesses being called and examined by the prosecutor. The proceedings are conducted secretly, and the person being investigated has no right to be present or to submit his own evidence.

Normally the only evidence heard is that presented by the state. If the grand jury finds, by a majority vote, that the person or persons under investigation probably committed a crime, it will enter a "true bill" of indictment. This is not a finding that the person indicted is guilty of a crime but rather that there is sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial.

Arguments Pro and Con

The grand jury has a notable history of exposing public and private wrongdoing. The key element has been its relative independence. Critics of the grand jury have argued, however, that it is inefficient, costly, and slow in comparison with the use of the "information" as the accusatory device and that most grand juries are closely controlled by the prosecutor and accomplish little that he could not do alone. The secrecy with which the grand jury operates, originally based on the need to prevent the escape of offenders, increases the potential for abuse of the system by the government and makes difficult the redress of any wrong done by irresponsible witnesses or the grand jury itself.

Critics also charge that in turbulent times some prosecutors employ grand juries to obtain politically useful information and to harass politically unpopular citizens when there is in fact no indication that a crime has been committed.

Trends

Criticisms have led to proposals for procedural modifications, particularly with reference to right to counsel and cross-examination.

Because of U. S. constitutional limitations, the American course during the late 20th century has tended toward modification and reform rather than the abolition of the grand jury, as occurred in England in 1933.

Have you ever been on a Grand Jury?

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