5 Frequently Asked Questions About Grand Juries

With famous cases happening in states like Missouri and New York, grand juries have received an increasing amount of attention over the last few years. Unlike a typical jury, a grand jury is not supposed to decide on the individual’s guilt. Instead, it is their job to decide if there is enough evidence to try the defendant.

1. What Makes a Grand Jury Different?

A normal jury is known as a petit jury. Encompassing about 6 to 12 people, a typical jury hears trial cases and decides on the facts of a criminal or civil case. A judge presides over the case and decides the legal interpretation. While a judge is still present in a grand jury case, the purpose of the case is different. Federal, county and state cases are given to grand juries sometimes to decide if there is enough probable cause to try a criminal in court. The grand jury consists of 12 to 23 people who are brought together when a prosecutor needs to find out if there is enough probable cause to try someone on criminal charges.

2. New York Judge Sol Wachtler once said that a grand jury would indict a sandwich. If it is so common for a grand jury to indict the defendant, why are more police officers not charged?

While it may seem difficult to understand, police officers are held to a different standard than average citizens. Unlike typical defendants, a police officer is given qualified immunity. This means that they are allowed to use deadly force in certain cases. At the start of the trial, the judge instructs the grand jury about how the law differs for police officers. A law enforcer is allowed to carry a law and use a weapon during their official duties. Due to this, it is often harder to convict a police officer of murder. Lawyers frequently use grand juries to decide if there is enough evidence to overcome the qualified immunity requirements.

3. How Is a Grand Jury Selected?

Grand jury selections vary from place to place, but the process is similar to a normal jury. Individuals receive notices to appear for jury duties. Once they have appeared, the judge and lawyers will ask some questions. Grand jurors must be impartial and fair. If they cannot judge a case impartially, the juror is dismissed. In addition, jurors must be available for the few days or months that they will hear the case. If they are unavailable due to a logistical reason, the juror can be dismissed.

4. Will the Defendant Be Questioned?

In a grand jury trial, the accused can testify if they want to. Unlike other jury trials, the accused is not required to testify. If they choose to testify before the court, they will be questioned by the prosecutor. The grand jury can also question the defendant and witnesses, but the defense attorney is not allowed to do any questioning.

5. How Many People Have to Vote for an Indictment?

In a normal courtroom, a defendant is convicted of a crime if there is a preponderance of evidence. A grand jury trial does not require as much effort to get an indictment. Only a quorum of the jurors must vote for an indictment for the defendant to stand trial. In a jury of 12 people, this means that just nine jurors have to vote for an indictment for it to be successful.

Many people were upset following grand jury trials in Ferguson and Staten Island. One of the main problems cited was the racial makeup of the jury. Unfortunately, it is impossible to choose the jury for a particular trial. Grand juries are often selected months in advance, so there is no way to determine the exact demographics of the jury. Since stay-at-home parents and retirees are more likely to have the time to serve on a jury, these groups are over-represented in grand juries compared to the general population. To ensure that democracy and the legal system actually work,it is up to each citizen to serve on a jury when they are called.

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