What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury in America is a legal body, composed of 16 to 23 private citizens, that conducts official proceedings and investigates the possibility of criminal acts. It also determines if the case requires that criminal charges be brought against an individual or an entity, including the government. The grand jury is a separate entity from the courts and only has the power to indict; it cannot pass down punishment for crimes. The use of a grand jury in America is uncommon and is usually reserved for high-profile criminal or political cases.

Functions and Uses

The grand jury is used as a way to investigate a crime prior to a court proceeding. It acts as a barrier to unfair prosecution when no crime has been committed but can also be used to indict an individual or entity of the crime which has brought them to the grand jury. The grand jury often hears testimony from witnesses, reviews documents, and listens to arguments brought forth by the prosecutor; this body does not hear a defense because it is not a trial jury. Its only function is to determine whether there is reason enough to believe a crime has been committed and the case must go to trial.


Grand juries work as follows: a case is brought to the attention of the prosecutor, who decides they require the involvement of the body in order to fairly bring charges against a suspect. Because of this, grand juries are used in high-profile cases to demonstrate objectivity when approaching the case. Prosecutors then work with the jurors, which can number between 16 to 23 citizens, explaining the law and review evidence. Because the suspect and witnesses are barred from having their attorneys accompany them, and because the rule of evidence allows for more evidence, the grand jury can focus on the facts and testimony for their decision. Once the grand jury makes its decision on whether or not to indict the suspect, the case moves from the body and into a trial.

Employment of the Grand Jury in America

Many developed countries utilize the grand jury, all of which have different requirements and specifications. In the United States, the grand jury is generally used in high-profile felony cases and during government investigations, especially those to do with possible corruption or collusion. Currently, all states have the ability to call for grand juries, but only half employ them on a consistent basis; just 22 states require their use, and even that depends on the type of case. At the federal level, and in cases including public officials, grand juries are almost always used as a way to ensure that the matter is taken seriously; grand juries can also compel the testimony of witnesses that otherwise would not participate in the case.

Related Resource: What is a Court Reporter?

The grand jury is a body that is necessary for the American criminal justice system. While few people understand its function, it is critical in ensuring that only real cases are heard by trial juries. With this understanding of the importance of the grand jury, individuals will be able to closely follow public cases that may be important to them.