The media have recently spent a lot of time covering white collar crimes. We’ve seen Medicare fraud and college admission scandals running amok in the news. And since these crimes are federal offenses, we’ve heard a lot about grand juries and federal indictments.
So what are grand juries, and what role do they play in criminal justice? These are questions that date back to the earliest days of the United States. Anyone facing an investigation or asked to testify will want to know the answers.
Put forth as a protection by the Fifth Amendment
The Fifth Amendment lay the groundwork for the use of grand juries in U.S. courts. It says that in the case of serious federal offenses, the prosecution needs to convince a grand jury there’s enough evidence to file criminal charges. This is notably different than the evidence needed in a trial.
Grand juries versus trial juries
Grand juries and trial juries serve different roles.
- Grand juries usually consist of 12 to 23 people. They hear evidence and can investigate crimes to see if there’s enough reason to pursue criminal charges.
- Trial juries most often consist of 6 to 12 people. They hear the facts of a case, but don’t investigate it. It’s their job to decide whether prosecutors have argued a criminal case beyond all doubt.
Grand jury decisions don’t need to be unanimous. On the other hand, in criminal cases, trial juries need to arrive at their decisions unanimously.
The prosecution runs the show
No less a source than the Florida bar states that “the grand jury is the prosecutor’s mechanism.” The prosecutor gets to decide which cases to bring to the grand jury and which evidence to present. There’s no judge. Instead, prosecutors choose the witnesses to interrogate and the laws to explore. Accused persons do not get to present evidence of their own, and defense attorneys may not take part.
Grand jury hearings stay secret
Florida grand juries face stricter rules for secrecy than federal grand juries, but secrecy plays an important role in both. Except in certain cases, the witnesses, lawyers and jurors in grand jury hearings must keep silent about the things they see and hear.
Prosecutors may bring testimony from grand juries to trial
Nearly all testimony from grand jury hearings can be used as evidence at a later trial. And the prosecution does not need to tell people if they are simply witnesses or the actual targets of an investigation. For this reason, it’s a good idea to be careful about anything you say before a grand jury. You also have the right to “plead the Fifth” to avoid implicating yourself in a crime.
Defense attorneys can still help people during grand jury hearings
Defense attorneys can’t take part in the hearings themselves, but they often wait in the hallways. People will sometimes make polite requests to speak with their lawyers before answering questions. They’ll go into the hallway, talk with their lawyers and return to answer the questions. This way, the lawyers can keep them informed about their rights and help them avoid falling into certain traps.
It’s not a trial, but the stakes are just as high
If you’re ever asked to testify at a grand jury, you want to remember that the stakes are high. You may or may not be the prosecutor’s target, and prosecutors can use anything you say against you in a later trial—even if you’re not read your Miranda rights. You want to be careful. You want to be smart. And you may want to talk to a lawyer about the process before you take part.