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What Are Grand Juries and What Is Their Purpose?

A grand jury is comprised of between 16 and 23 members. It has its roots in the 5th amendment of the US constitution. 

In a criminal case, at least 12 members must unanimously agree on the decision at hand. 

The grand jury not only decides whether or not a crime was committed, but it is also an investigative tool, that the prosecutor can use to ask questions. 

The person of interest is not allowed to have an attorney at a grand jury proceeding, so you can imagine why a prosecutor would find this as a surefire way to investigate a pending charge or whether or not to charge a person! 

Who Makes Up a Grand Jury?

Grand jury pools are comprised of U.S. citizens over the age of 18 living in the federal district court’s geographic jurisdiction. It is the court clerk’s duty to verify said members of the pool through proper identification such as driver’s licenses and is registered to vote. 

Jurors in the pool will be screened through a questionnaire.  

To be chosen, one must be proficient in English, have no mental and physical condition, not be currently subject to felony charges that exceed one year, and never have been convicted of same. The members are then randomly chosen/selected. 

What Does the Grand Jury Decide?

In felony cases, there must be probable cause that a crime has been committed. 

Probable cause means: there must be some evidence of each element of the offense. 

What Kind of Cases Does the Grand Jury Hear?

Grand juries are generally used in murder cases but can be used for white-collar crimes, such as fraud.

Rather than presenting evidence to the judge through a preliminary hearing, most prosecutors use the grand jury because it is quicker than a preliminary hearing and the defendant has no right to counsel. 

As previously mentioned, prosecutors may not have all of the evidence they need to make a good case. In these instances, the grand jury is a good investigative tool. The ability to subpoena documents attaches once the jury is sworn and impaneled. 

Subpoena power means the prosecutor can compel witnesses to turn over documents and to testify. If there is sufficient evidence of a crime, the same grand jury has the power to indict the person they believe has committed the crime. 

Keep in mind that the prosecutor has an advantage because he does not know the evidence being considered, does not have a right to be present, and cannot question the evidence early in the criminal proceeding. 

A former chief judge of the new york court of appeals once stated: “a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.” 

That line became famous and you can see from the irony that the prosecutor’s job in a grand jury proceeding is made much easier than a preliminary hearing or other investigative tools. 

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