4.4: Criminal Procedure and Grand Juries
- Better understand the role of the grand jury in the United States
- Learn legal English vocabulary concerning the initial stages of a criminal case.
- Watch a video about grand juries and read about grand juries
- Answer the questions
1. Grand Juries
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires the federal government to convene a grand jury before formally charging a suspect with a serious crime. Grand juries are typically composed of between 16 -23 citizens.
Grand juries are meant to restrict the government’s power by requiring the government to present sufficient proof to ordinary citizens before forcing a suspect to defend himself against criminal charges. A prosecutor often convenes grand juries after the prosecutor determines that the government should charge a defendant with a serious crime, but before the suspect is arrested.
Proceedings of a grand jury are secret for a number of reasons, including insuring that the suspect does not flee before he is arrested. Prosecutors can also use grand juries to help investigate complex crimes, by convening a grand jury and compelling witnesses to testify.
In a grand jury proceeding the government must present sufficient evidence for the majority of the jury to conclude that there is probable cause to charge the suspect. The prosecutor will submit a set of proposed charges to the grand jury, called an indictment, and ask the grand jury to vote on the indictment. If the grand jury decides there is sufficient evidence, it will “return the indictment” or “return a true bill,” meaning that the suspect may be charged.
The grand jury does not determine the guilt or innocence of the suspect but only whether the suspect can be charged. It is usually not difficult for the government to succeed in persuading a grand jury that there is at least enough evidence to charge a defendant – – the percentage of cases each year where grand juries return an indictment is usually over 98%. States are not required to have grand juries but many do. Some states require (or provide suspects with the right to) a grand jury hearing before charging a suspect with a felony. In other states, grand juries are reserved for specific crimes.