Tales from the Court: Grand Jury Mysteries Explained
The U.S. government system has worked well for more than 200 years and one of the reasons for this success is that the Founding Fathers, and those who followed them didn’t hesitate to borrow bits and pieces of what was working best for governments in other countries around the world.
However, there is one government institution that’s almost solely American. In fact, the United States shares this legal entity with only one other country — Liberia, which likely adopted it from the United States, and that entity is the grand jury.
The legal procedure known as the “grand jury” is a term that just about everyone has heard, but very few people actually understand. Many assume it’s just a regular jury for more important cases. Yet the term actually comes from the number of jurors involved, usually ranging from 16-23 citizens. A standard jury is technically called a petit (French for small) jury.
Although the grand jury system is part of the judicial process, its purpose is completely different from the standard jury’s. The members of a grand jury are empowered to investigate whether a crime has occurred and if there’s enough evidence to bring a case to trial.
Yet as author John Caile explains in his article “What is a Grand Jury?” at USConcealedCarry.com, many states do not use the grand jury prerogative:
“Interestingly, while every state has provisions to empanel grand juries, approximately half don’t use them. Instead, they have a ‘preliminary hearing’ to determine if a trial is warranted. However, there are significant differences.” (Read more at USConcealedCarry.com)
One of the reasons many states forego grand juries is cost. A preliminary hearing is presided over only by a judge, who hears both sides and determines the viability of going to trial. A grand jury on the other hand, involves the outlay of taxpayers’ money for weeks or potentially even months to compensate a large number of jury members for their time.
Another difference is that the grand jury isn’t required to have all members in agreement in order to make a recommendation. Depending on the jurisdiction, a 2/3 or ¾ of the majority is all that is needed.
If the grand jury does return an indictment, the prosecutor can proceed immediately to the trial stage. Even if an indictment isn’t returned, the prosecution can still move forward, but the burden of proof is higher since the DA’s office must now provide convincing evidence to a judge before a trial date can be set.
In some jurisdictions, there may be cases where both options are on the table and the prosecution will have to weigh the odds. One factor is that the defendant must choose to have a preliminary hearing. This happens when the defense attorney believes the judge will be sympathetic to their case. In other instances, high profile cases such as those involving police officers are often sent to a grand jury to relieve the onus of creating a possible adversarial relationship between the District Attorney and local law enforcement.
For those members of the concealed carry community, a little legal knowledge can be dangerous. It is important to learn as much as possible about the areas of law that may directly affect your life should you ever have to use your weapon. The grand jury is a somewhat obscure process that could significantly alter your future. Learn what to expect now and you will be prepared for the unexpected.