The vast majority of people have really no experience with the American court system and they certainly don’t know how a grand jury does its important job in jurisdictions throughout the country.
The role of the grand jury is coming under scrutiny following a Ferguson, MO grand jury’s failure to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson – the man who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown in August 2014. Following the announcement that there was no indictment, rioting broke out in Ferguson, nearby St. Louis and in cities as far as New York.
Many people are incredulous that the grand jury voted unanimously not to indict.
One reason may be this: unless you’ve been charged with an indictable crime or have served on a grand jury, it’s likely your knowledge of the process is limited to what you see on TV and in the movies.
So, here are some facts to set the record straight:
Contrary to what you may think, a grand jury does not determine guilt or punishment. Instead, the grand jury – made up of six or 12 people in non-federal courts – has to determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges (also called an indictment) against the defendant. This process is usually the first step in a criminal case and is used for serious felonies – not lesser crimes.
During the grand jury hearing, the jurors are presented with evidence by the prosecutors assigned to the case. Since it is the prosecutors job to convince the jurors to indict, the system relies on the fact that they are going to do everything they can to obtain the indictment. There is no judge present during the proceedings and the prosecutor is the only lawyer who participates.
Most grand juries are chosen and asked to sit for many months in a row – for a few days each month. These juries are chosen by judges with no knowledge of what cases may come down the pike. This is important in the Wilson case; the seated jury members were in place months before the indictment proceeding.
Further, there does not need to be a unanimous decision on the part of the grand jury to indict. It needs to be 2/3 or ¾ of the members, depending on the jurisdiction. In the Wilson case, all 12 jurors voted against bringing criminal charges against Officer Wilson.
The American Justice system is complicated and ever-changing. Civilians without legal training need to rely on those who are in the business of understanding the laws of our land.
If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, do go it alone. Have a skilled, experience lawyer on your side. Contact Atlantic City criminal defense lawyer John W. Tumelty for a free consultation about your charges.