Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Grand Jury Definition:

An American criminal justice procedure whereby, in each court district, a group of 16-23 citizens hold an inquiry on criminal complaints brought by the prosecutor and decide if a trial is warranted, in which case an indictment is issued.

Related Terms: Jury, Verdict

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It is the intent of the system, and the random selection process, to constitute a group representative of citizens of the relevant community generally. They have court officers assigned to them, elect a foreman and have access to a judge from time to time but just to guide them over legal hiccups, not to preside over their deliberations (some of the members of the 1999 Monterey, CA Grand Jury pictured).

If a Grand Jury rejects a proposed indictment, decided not to indict, it is known as a "no bill", "no true bill" or an "ignoramus".

In his 2013 novel Defending Jacob, American writer William Landay, a former Assistant District Attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, offered this smart descritipon of a grand jury:

"Grand juries serve for months and they figure pretty quickly what the gig is all about.

"A grand jury proceeding is not a trial. There's no judge in the room and no defence lawyer. The prosecutor runs the show. It is an investigation and in theory a check on the prosecutor;'s power since the grand jury decides if the prosecutor has enough evidence to haul the suspect into Court for trial. If there is enough evidence, the grand jury grants the prosecutor an indictment, his ticket to superior court. If not, they return a no bill."

If they accept to endorse a proposed indictment it is known as a true bill and the accused must then face a criminal trial on the charge(s) so returned.

Many American states require a Grand Jury's true bill before any person can be formally charged with a felony.

Grand Jury Notably, a Grand Jury does not decide or even offer an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the prospective defendant but, instead, decides on a majority vote basis whether or not the district attorney has provided enough evidence to justify a criminal trial.

The Grand Jury is designed to be a buffer or a referee between the ever-powerful government (i.e the district attorney), and individuals who are charged with crimes.

It is a specific requirements set out in the US Fifth Amendment:

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury".

Grand juries are a peculiarity of the American criminal justice system.

Larger judicial districts usually enlist a standing Grand Jury for a set period of time, such as a year, where they review applications set before them from time to time by the relevant district attorney, who argues for a true bill. These standing Grand Juries, or those which are ad hoc, can sometimes be tasked to conduct inquiries into other matters of public interest such as public works.

All Grand Jurors must meet certain qualifications (such as having never been convicted of a felony) and be able to read and write.

The district attorney usually runs the show at a Grand Jury with normal rules of evidence put on the shelf. Hearsay is allowed, the hearings are held in secret, the accused has no right to present evidence although that right may be granted, or to cross-examine witnesses, or even to be represented by attorney (although some states do allow it), there is no supervision of a judge, the prosecutor is not obliged to present any evidence favorable to the prospective defendant, and unanimity is not required.

Some have estimated that grand juries issues indictments, true bills, 9 times out of 10.

"In practice, no bills are rare. Most grand juries indict. Why not? They only see one side of the case."

Some states have opted out of the grand jury system, or present an option to the district attorney, and have an alternative that is similar to the Canadian process where the prosecutor describes the alleged offense in a document called "information" and takes that directly to the court for the commencement of proceedings against the accused.

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