The grand jury plays a fundamental role in the United States federal legal system, yet the process remains a mystery to many. It serves as a gatekeeper between the government and the accused, deciding whether there is enough evidence to charge an individual with a crime.
To gain a better understanding of this process, it becomes necessary to explore the workings of a federal grand jury.
The assembly of a grand jury
A federal grand jury consists of 16 to 23 citizens who serve a term of typically 18 months. The selection process is similar to that of a trial jury, with jurors drawn from the community where the court sits. The court will instruct the jurors about their duties and the law applicable to the case.
The role of a grand jury
The primary role of a federal grand jury is to review evidence and decide whether there is probable cause to believe that an individual committed a federal crime. Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence but only whether there is sufficient evidence to bring an indictment.
The grand jury proceedings
During these proceedings, the prosecutors present evidence, call witnesses and make legal arguments. Witnesses must answer questions truthfully but also have the right to “plead the fifth” if an answer might incriminate them.
The decision of a grand jury
After reviewing the evidence, the grand jury decides whether to return an indictment. If the grand jury believes that there is enough evidence to charge the accused, it will issue a “true bill.” If the grand jury does not believe there is enough evidence, it will return a “no bill.”
The secrecy of grand jury proceedings
The proceedings of a grand jury are secret to protect the reputation of the accused if the grand jury does not return an indictment and to encourage witnesses to speak freely. However, if indicted, the accused has a right to know the evidence presented against them.
The grand jury serves as a buffer between the accused and the government, ensuring that there is probable cause before an individual faces charges for a federal crime.