What Is Indictment?
Facing the possibility of being arrested for a felony is daunting for everyone, whether guilty or innocent. Thinking about having to leave family, friends and career responsibilities and spending time in jail is always a challenge. However, for those who committed or are suspected of committing a serious crime, there's a step that comes before facing a trial: indictment.
This term may be familiar to those who watch crime or police dramas, but the logistics aren't necessarily clear. So, what is an indictment, and how might it affect the outcome of a criminal case?
An indictment is a formal accusation of a crime. Indictments aren't generally used for minor crimes, such as misdemeanors. They usually come into play with charges that require a much higher burden of proof. This can include felonies, cases of significant public interest, cases where evidence may not be substantial enough to proceed with charges otherwise and cases where crimes are suspected by someone holding a public office.
Per the U.S. Supreme Court and the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger."
Effectively, this means that an indictment by a grand jury is necessary to be charged with a serious crime, and no criminal trial will be able to proceed without a formal indictment. Being indicted means that a jury of peers has found that there is sufficient evidence. This does not mean that someone will be found guilty — just that the prosecution has ample reason to take a case to trial. Indictments can occur both on the state and federal levels.
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A grand jury is a collection of individuals whose sole purpose is to review the evidence provided by the prosecution and determine whether there is adequate support for an indictment. Unlike a standard trial jury, grand juries do not usually hear from the defense; they are only provided information from the prosecution, including support from district attorneys, police officers, police informants and witnesses. If the grand jury agrees that the information provided is adequate, they will vote to indict. At this point, the accused will be subject to a criminal trial. There is no judge in a grand jury; instead, the prosecutor oversees the proceedings.
A grand jury is not always necessary, even in the case of a serious crime. For example, if a defendant waives his rights to a grand jury in exchange for a plea bargain, charges can proceed without an indictment. What crimes are considered for indictment will depend on state or federal law, as well as specific circumstances.
Being charged with a crime and being indicted both lead to the defendant having to appear in court to face criminal charges. However, being indicted means that there has been an extra step where a grand jury had to ensure that there was enough evidence to proceed with the crime because the charges are more serious.
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