Grand juries and their issuance of indictments have been in the news lately. This includes a grand juror discussing the nature of the charges presented which did not result in an indictment. So what is a grand jury?
When you have read in the newspaper that someone has been indicted for a felony crime, such as first degree murder, by a grand jury you may have wondered what is a grand jury’s purpose and who serves on a grand jury. The primary purpose of the grand jury is to review evidence presented by the prosecuting attorney to determine whether probable cause exists to charge a person with a crime by indictment. Under Minnesota law only a grand jury may charge a person with the crimes punishable by life imprisonment, or misconduct of a public official, by indictment. The prosecutor may choose to proceed to charge a person by indictment through the grand jury process for any felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor crime. The grand jury (rather than by complaint) consists of 16-23 citizens randomly called to jury duty, same as with a petit jury. Petit jurors hear civil and criminal trials and determine the facts by verdict. They may sit as jurors in several trials over the course of two weeks to four months in general, varying by size of the county. However, grand jurors may serve up to 12 months and may be summoned to convene whenever in the public interest or when requested by the county attorney.
The history of grand juries goes back to 1166 in England. Groups of twelve or four men would consul the king on criminal or civil matters in the city or village. Theoretically, because they were royal appointees, the jurors would be impartial and not associated with either party. These groups were required to report all suspects. People who were suspected had to go through a trial by ordeal, e.g., being dunked in water or burnt at the stake. In the 14th century, the twelve-person panel was replaced with a group of twenty-four knights who were picked by the county sheriff. This group was called the “le grande inquest” and had the authority to begin a prosecution. The twelve-man group became known as a “petit jury” and had the duty of reaching a verdict.
American colonists brought the tradition of the grand jury over to the New World. However, instead of being a part of the king’s accusatory arsenal, the grand jury was used by the colonists to protect them from overreaching by the king. Over time, the grand jury also took part in local government decisions, including levying taxes and appointing local officials, as well as the modern role of screening criminal accusations. The grand jury was enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, but the United States Supreme Court has decided that a grand jury is only required for cases tried in federal court and not in state court. It was not until 1975 that the United States Supreme Court mandated that the jury pool in state courts be a representative cross-section of the local community. Until that time, jurors could be specially selected, a system that often excluded minorities and women.
When the grand jury convenes to consider a criminal indictment, the county attorney calls witnesses to testify under oath before the grand jury. Unlike a petit jury, there is no judge presiding, the hearing is not open to the public, and the person who may be charged by indictment is not present, nor is that person’s attorney. There is no questioning of jurors as to their fitness to serve. Therefore none of the grand jurors have been screened for bias or other improper factors.
If the grand jury finds probable cause for the charge, it may issue an indictment. It can also issue a “no bill”, that is, refuse to indict the person for the crime. An indictment remains secret until it is read in open court in the presence of the Defendant. It should not be leaked to the media or public. The criminal procedure then follows the normal course to petit jury trial with different jurors.
Grand juries also have the power to independently investigate (a) conditions within jails and prisons, and (b) willful and corrupt misconduct in public office. They are bound by an oath of secrecy during their deliberations. The grand jury acts as a “sword” in investigating crime and indicting criminals, and as a “shield” because of its secret deliberations to protect the innocent from unfair publicity.
JUDGE STEVE HALSEY, Wright County District Court, is chambered in Buffalo and is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.”