A grand jury is a group of citizens who are empowered by law to conduct legal proceedings and investigate potential criminal conduct, and determine whether criminal charges should be brought.
Nature of a Grand Jury
The powers and functions of the federal grand jury differ from those of the federal trial jury, which is called the petit jury. The petit jury listens to the evidence offered by the prosecution and the defense (if it chooses to offer any) during a criminal trial and returns a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
The grand jury, on the other hand, does not determine guilt or innocence, but only whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that a specific person or persons committed it. If the grand jury finds that probable cause exists against a person suspected of having committed the crime, then it will return a written statement of the charges called an “indictment.” After that, the person will go to trial.
The grand jury normally hears only that evidence presented by a government attorney, which tends to show the commission of a crime. The government attorney usually is the United States Attorney or an Assistant United States Attorney in the federal district. The grand jury must determine from this evidence, and usually without hearing evidence for the defense, whether the person being investigated by the government should be tried for a serious federal crime, referred to in the Bill of Rights as an “infamous crime.”
An infamous crime is one which may be punished by imprisonment for more than one year. As a general rule, no one can be prosecuted for a serious crime unless the grand jury decides that the evidence it has heard so requires. In this way, the grand jury operates both as a “sword,” authorizing the government’s prosecution of suspected criminals, and also as a “shield,” protecting citizens from unwarranted or inappropriate prosecutions. The person being investigated by the government may, however, waive grand jury proceedings and agree to be prosecuted by a written charge of crime called an information.
The grand jury is not completely free to compel a trial of anyone it chooses. The government attorney must sign the indictment before a party may be prosecuted. Thus, the government and the grand jury act as checks on each other. This assures that neither may arbitrarily wield the awesome power to indict a person of a crime.
Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts: www.uscourts.gov