Basically, a grand jury’s function is to control the start of prosecutions for felony cases. In 1215, the grand jury was established to keep a tight reign on the king, preventing the possible despotic abuse of his powers against the citizens.
Each state has its own laws, rules, and regulations regarding court systems. However, the goal and end results are the same…to provide a fair trial to the accused. For the purpose of this article, though, we’re speaking of Grand Juries in the Commonwealth of Virgina, simply because that’s familiar to me. However, the process is basically the same in the areas/states using the Grand Jury system.
In Virginia, criminal court proceeding normally begin with an arrest, usually by warrant, which is a formal, written accusation stating that the person named has committed a crime.
– Crimes are divided into two classes—misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is punishable by a sentence of up to 12 months in jail and/or a monetary fine. Felonies, the more serious of the two crime classifications, are punishable by confinement in the state penitentiary (remember, we’re only talking about state and local courts, not federal offenses).
– Offenders arrested for misdemeanor offenses are brought to trial in District Court (lower court), where he/she is tried before the district judge. There is no jury in District Court. The district judge hears the case and makes one of two decisions—not guilty, which results in dismissal of charges, or guilty, which results in imposition of sentence.
A District Court judge has no authority to try felony cases, only misdemeanors and traffic cases.
If the accused is charged with a felony offense, he makes his first court appearance in the lower court where a district judge conducts a preliminary/probable cause hearing to determine whether or not enough evidence exists to try the case.
Both the prosecutor and defense present evidence during preliminary hearings. Keep in mind, though, these hearings are not trials, therefore not all evidence is presented, nor are all witnesses or experts called on to testify.
If the district/lower court judge finds that a felony has been committed, along the necessary evidence to back it up, then he/she sends the case to Circuit Court (high court) for trial. Sending a case to the higher court is called “certifying” the case (Judge I. R. Mean certified the case against Ima Crook).
– Once a case has been certified it goes to the Regular Grand Jury, whose duty is to once again determine whether or not there is probable cause to believe the person has indeed committed a felony. The defendant may or may not be released on bail while waiting for the Circuit Court trial to begin.
After a case has been certified to the Circuit Court (the high court), the prosecutor (Commonwealth’s Attorney in Va.) prepares a “bill of indictment,” which is a formal document accusing the defendant of the felony.
Prosecutors may elect to bypass the lower court entirely by bringing the case/bill of indictment straight to the Grand Jury. This step can be done in secret to avoid “tipping off” the accused. This is often done in major cases involving multiple offenders, such as drug dealers, child porn operations, etc. When the indictments are “handed down” police officers begin rounding up the accused criminals. These arrests are often carried out simultaneously in large multi-jurisdictional/agency sweeps. Again, this is done to avoid tipping off co-defendants/conspirators.
Following an indictment and subsequent arrest, the accused is arraigned—charges are formally read and the accused enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).
Grand Jurors are selected randomly (voter registrations, DMV, etc.) by the clerk of the court and are summoned to appear by the sheriff (serving jury summons is one of the duties of a sheriff, but not a responsibility of a chief of police). In Virginia, Grand Jurors serve, as needed, for a term of six months (they do not meet every day, or even every month). The Grand Jury consists of 5-9 jurors.
Before the Grand Jury begin their duties, the judge reads a list of instructions of their official duties and rules. This reading of instructions is called “Charging the Grand Jury.”
The Grand Jury’s purpose is to determine whether or not there is sufficient probable cause to try the accused for the crime in question. The Grand Jury does not determine guilt or innocence.
Grand Juries normally meet in a jury room, not in open court.
Once in the jury room, the members of the Grand Jury begin hearing testimony from witnesses. Witnesses are called one at a time and are questioned by the members. No attorneys and no judge. And, only witnesses for the prosecution are called before the Grand Jury. The defense is not permitted to present their case at this time.
When all testimony is heard, the Jury then votes. If four or more Jury members vote yes, then it has been decided that they will issue a “true bill,” meaning enough evidence/probable cause exists to proceed with the trial. A vote of “not a true bill,” means the jury did not find an ample amount of probable cause to proceed with a trial at that particular time. However, it is rare to see a Grand Jury return a “not a true bill” finding since all witnesses are prosecution witnesses.
– Grand Jury proceedings are held in secret.
*Remember, rules and regulations governing Grand Juries vary from one state to another. Also, please remember that the above information is basic. There are, as always, exceptions.