How Does a Grand Jury Work?
The grand jury plays an important role in the criminal process, but not one that involves a finding of guilt or punishment of a party. Instead, a prosecutor will work with a grand jury to decide whether to bring charges, or an indictment, against a potential defendant. Grand jury members may be called for jury duty for months at a time, but need only appear in court for a few days out of every month. Regular court trial juries are usually 6 or 12 people, but a grand jury is 23 people.
Grand Jury Proceedings
Grand jury proceedings are much more relaxed than normal court room proceedings. There is no judge present and frequently there are no lawyers except for the prosecutor. The prosecutor will explain the law to the jury and work with them to gather evidence and hear testimony. Under normal courtroom rules of evidence, exhibits and other testimony must adhere to strict rules before admission. However, a grand jury had broad power to see and hear almost anything they would like.
However, unlike the vast majority of trials, grand jury proceedings are kept in strict confidence. This serves two purposes: first, it encourages witnesses to speak freely and without fear of retaliation. Second, it protects the potential defendant's reputation in case the jury does not decide to indict.
The Grand Jury's Decision and a Prosecutor's Discretion
Grand juries do not need a unanimous decision from all members to indict, but it does need a supermajority of 2/3 or 3/4 agreement for an indictment. Even though a grand jury may not choose to indict, a prosecutor may still bring the defendant to trial if she thinks she has a strong enough case. However, the grand jury proceedings are often a valuable test run for prosecutors in making the decision to bring the case.
If the grand jury chooses to indict, the trial will most likely begin faster. Without a grand jury indictment, the prosecutor has to demonstrate to the trial judge that she has enough evidence to continue with the case. However, with a grand jury indictment, the prosecutor can skip that step and proceed directly to trial.