What Is a Grand Jury?

by Rachel Elle
Jury box

Most Americans are familiar with the concept of juries — a committee of everyday people from a local community brought together to make sentencing decisions in legal cases — but that knowledge usually extends to petit juries, also called trial juries.

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However, this is not the only kind of jury in use on a state and federal level throughout the United States. There's one other very important kind of jury that plays a role in the criminal justice system: grand juries. These juries serve a different, but equally vital, role in ensuring justice is carried out when a crime is committed.

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What Is a Grand Jury, and How Does it Work?

Simply put, the grand jury definition is a form of jury in which an indictment is determined in a criminal case. These juries are presented evidence by prosecutors to decide whether there is ample probable cause to go to trial. A majority or supermajority of jurors must vote to indict, which means to rule that a case is worth moving forward. If an indictment is made, a prosecutor will usually proceed with bringing a case to trial.

Grand juries are usually made up of between 16 and 23 people, and they operate in private rather than at a public trial. The defendant is not involved; only prosecutors, witnesses, police officers, and other third parties, like forensic analysts, involved with a case present evidence. This means that grand juries only get one side of the story but are still able to serve their overall purpose: evaluating the strength of a potential legal case.

When and Why Is a Grand Jury Used?

Grand juries are largely used when determining whether a criminal case has enough evidence to go to trial. In most jurisdictions, grand juries are only used when a defendant has been charged with a felony; minor cases, like misdemeanors, are outside the purview of grand juries. Grand juries then review all the evidence provided by prosecutors and their chosen witnesses and come to a determination. These juries are commonly, but certainly not exclusively, used in white-collar cases.

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How Does a Grand Jury Compare to a Trial Jury?

The primary difference between a grand jury and a trial jury revolves around function. A grand jury brings down an indictment, while a trial jury determines the verdict. This is a very important distinction; one makes a decision about whether a case should move forward to some sort of resolution, like a trial or a plea agreement, while the other plays a role in how a crime is ultimately punished or not punished.

How a grand jury is selected differs from a trial jury as well. While trial jurors are selected individually from a predetermined pool, grand jurors are essentially chosen by lottery. Anyone drawn for grand jury service and who meets the basic eligibility, like being a U.S. citizen and speaking fluent English, may be randomly assigned to a jury. In addition, while trial juries usually participate in a single case and are dismissed, grand juries last for a set term, like full days for two weeks or half days for four weeks. During this time, juries will hear many cases, sometimes portions of multiple cases in a single day.

In many jurisdictions, grand juries play a key role in the function of the criminal justice system. With the ability to assess the viability of criminal cases as a group of unbiased community members, it's possible for the prosecution to present cases with confidence.

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