What Is a Grand Jury? Why Are they Grand?

What Is a Grand Jury? Why Are they Grand?

Maybe you’ve previously heard of the term, but you’re not exactly sure what a grand jury is, what they do, or where the name comes from. Or maybe you’ve never heard of the term and now you’re curious. What is a grand jury, after all? And what makes them grand?

What Is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a group of citizens that are selected to investigate potential criminal conduct during legal proceedings. Ultimately this group works to determine whether criminal charges should be brought forth in a case. 

While a trial jury makes decisions on whether a suspect is innocent or guilty at the end of a trial, the grand jury makes a decision on whether or not to proceed at the beginning of the case. Although they aren’t responsible for making the final decision, they play a large role in the US criminal justice system.

In fact, the United States (along with Liberia) is one of only two common law jurisdictions in the world that use the grand juries to screen criminal indictments today.

Who Is on a Grand Jury?

As alluded to, a grand jury is not someone who works in the court. They a collective body of randomly selected citizens–usually between 16 and 23 people. These individuals oversee legal hearings, and decide whether to make an indictment or press criminal charges against a suspect.

In an effort to remove some of the power the state has over the people, grand juries must be unbiased in their opinions and cannot have any connection to the court. Typically, a grand jury will convene over long periods of time, often seeing all or many cases that come up in a given jurisdiction. And these cases are usually brought forth under the supervision of a federal attorney, a county district attorney, or a state attorney-general.   

How Does the Process Work?

Grand jury hearings are held ex parte, meaning the suspect or involved person does not take part in the proceedings.

The grand jury process begins with a prosecutor explaining the law to the jury. The prosecutor will then begin to present any sort of evidence they have in regards to their case. They might fully outline and explain the details, and/or call up any witnesses they might have to testify. And a grand jury, in turn, has the power to see and hear almost anything they would like.

These proceedings take place privately to encourage free speaking and so that the potential defendant (who very well may be innocent) is protected. After the grand jury listens to all of the information, they move on to vote on whether or not the suspect should be charged with a crime, depending on the information they’ve been given and whether or not they have enough evidence to issue an indictment. 

A grand jury does not require a unanimous decision in order to indict. But it does need a ⅔ or ¾ majority depending on the jurisdiction. And of course, a prosecutor can still bring a defendant to trial regardless of the outcome. But these proceedings are often considered a bit of a test run for prosecutors. 

Why Are Grand Juries Grand?

You might have already guessed that grand juries are “grand” because of the size of the group. We mentioned they typically consist of anywhere between 16 to 23 people. This is a contrast to a petit jury, or trial jury, which typically has 12 members.

But they’re also “grand” because of the power they wield. After listening to the details of a case, they alone must issue a decision on whether or not to indict. No attorneys, judges, or defendants are allowed to be present as they work to reach a decision. And these proceedings are not open to the public. 

Do All States Have Grand Juries?

Per the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, the federal government is required to use grand juries for all felonies, though not misdemeanors. While all states in the US have provisions for grand juries, only about half the states actually use them. Twenty-two states actually require their use to some extent.

However, the much more common modern trend is to use a preliminary hearing before a trial court judge, rather than a grand jury. Unlike a grand jury, a preliminary hearing is usually open to the public and involves lawyers on both sides and a judge. But the function is largely the same–to determine probable cause that a defendant committed a felony before any sort of indictment has been brought forth. 


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