The Grand Jury
The United States uses the grand jury to screen criminal indictments. A criminal indictment is a formal charge or accusation of a serious crime.
A grand jury is not involved in finding guilt or punishment. A prosecutor works with a grand jury to decide whether to bring criminal charges against a potential defendant. These indictments are usually reserved for serious felonies.
Grand juries are made up of normal, everyday citizens who have been called for jury duty. They are not professional jurors and there are no specific restrictions on who can serve on a grand jury compared to who can serve on a regular jury. People who have been selected to be grand jurors may be called for jury duty for months at a time, but they only need to come to court for a few days out of each month. Grand juries are typically made up of 16 to 23 people.
Grand juries can be viewed as tools of the criminal court system to bring charges or an indictment against a defendant but they are not used in every criminal case.
A Preliminary Hearing Compared to a Grand Jury
Like a grand jury, a preliminary hearing is called to determine whether or not there is enough evidence against someone charged with a crime to convict them of it. Courts often use preliminary hearings when a potential criminal trial is particularly adversarial in nature.
A meeting of a grand jury for a hearing is typically closed to the public whereas a preliminary hearing is typically open to the public. Preliminary hearings usually involve lawyers on both sides as well as a judge. Grand juries typically only involve the prosecutor(s) and the jurors themselves.
Contrary to the intimidating name, a hearing in front of a grand jury is much more relaxed than normal courtroom proceedings.
Grand jury proceedings are secret, there is not even a judge present. Except for the prosecutor(s), there are no lawyers involved in grand jury proceedings.
In grand jury proceedings, the prosecutor(s) typically explain the laws surrounding a potential case to the jury and then works with them to gather evidence and hear testimony.
In a regular jury trial, evidence, exhibits and other testimony must adhere to strict rules before the court will allow them to be admitted to the courtroom but grand juries have broader powers to see and hear almost anything they would like.
Unlike most trials that are supposed to be public and become public record, grand jury proceedings are highly secret. The two main purposes behind the confidentiality of grand jury proceedings are:
- Witnesses are more likely to be encouraged to speak freely and without fear of
retaliation from a potential defendant.
- To protect a potential defendant’s reputation in case the grand jury decides not to
formally accuse or charge them with a serious crime.
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