In Federal Court, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution generally requires that for serious crimes, a grand jury must be impaneled prior to formally charging someone with a criminal offense. The grand jury is a panel made up of 16 to 23 community members, who are selected by a federal judge to serve for terms of 18 to 36 months. Unlike ordinary juries, which decide whether a defendant is guilty of the charged offenses after hearing evidence at a trial, the purpose of a grand jury is decide whether charges should be brought against that person in the first place.
The job of the grand jury is to review the government’s evidence against the accused. In furtherance of that job, the prosecutor (the United States Attorney for that district, an Assistant United States Attorney, or a Special United States Attorney) will present evidence to the grand jury similarly to the way he would at trial. Like at trial, witnesses can be subpoenaed to testify about their knowledge of events. Unlike trials, which are public record, grand jury investigations are generally conducted in secret. The biggest difference between a grand jury investigation and a trial, however, is that only the prosecution gets to present evidence and be heard. In grand jury investigations, the accused does not have the right to cross-examine witnesses or present opposing evidence. This difference is obviously very important, as the grand jury will only hear one side of the story. Though it may seem unfair, the idea behind only hearing the government’s side is that the grand jury only determines whether charges will be brought, meaning that the accused still has the ability to defend against those charges at trial.
After the government has presented its evidence, the grand jury will vote on whether that evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that a crime was committed. If the grand jury votes that the government’s evidence was sufficient, they will return what’s called a true bill of indictment against the accused. An indictment is the formal document that charges a person with the commission of a crime. On the other hand, if the grand jury votes that the government’s evidence was insufficient to justify bringing charges, then the matter doesn’t move forward. It’s worth noting that because the government only brings cases to a grand jury when they feel they have enough evidence to go to trial, the grand jury rarely votes against an indictment.
Once an indictment is returned, the case begins to move forward through the criminal justice process and against the accused person. If you or someone you know has been indicted by a grand jury, it’s important to retain an attorney as soon as possible. Because the prosecuting attorney has already had an opportunity to present his evidence, the government’s case against the accused is already well prepared. The sooner an accused can retain counsel, the more time their attorney has to prepare a defense. In addition, your attorney can arrange for cooperative surrender and do the things that are necessary in order to give you the best opportunity for pre-trial release.
For more information on indictments and grand juries in a particular case contact the Speaks Law Firm at (910) 341-7570 or go to Speakslaw.com.