What is a Grand Jury

What is a Grand Jury?

In Ohio, juries are generally one of two types: Grand or Petit (from the French for small or short) Juries. Grand juries have longer terms of service and consider many cases. Petit juries are called to try only one case. 

In this article, we look at the history and function of the Grand Jury.

In English legal history, each county had a Grand Jury serving for a term of court (in Ohio a term of court is for 4 months). The King’s Judges rode circuits throughout the counties trying to have court in each county at least once per term. Without resident judges, accused persons would often languish in jail for months. The purpose of the Grand Jury was to review the evidence against the accused to see if there was good cause to hold him (the English term is “bind him over to the Sheriff”) until the Judge arrived for his trial. The trial would be conducted on the charges or Bill of Indictment issued (the English term is “handed down”) by the Grand Jury. The purpose of the Grand Jury was not only to bring indictments against those who probably committed serious crimes but to protect the accused from unfounded or unjust accusations. When a Grand Jury refused to indict a person, they returned “No Bill” and the charges were dropped.

The United States adopted the requirement for the Grand Jury in the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, which states: “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.”

While many of the rights in the 5th Amendment and others in the Bill of Rights have been applied to the states through the 14th Amendment, the right to have your serious criminal case reviewed by a Grand Jury is not one of them. For instance, Perry Mason fans will remember that the Grand Jury in California is optional and is replaced with a preliminary hearing in front of a judge. It is at these hearings that Perry would psychologically force someone in the courtroom gallery to confess to the crime.

In Ohio, nobody may be tried for a capital (death penalty) or serious crime (a felony punishable by the prison) without being indicted by a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury consists of nine members and at least seven members must agree before an indictment is approved (called a “True Bill”). The exception to this rule is if the accused waives the right to Grand Jury review and is tried upon a “Bill of Information.” Bills of Information are generally used where a plea agreement has been reached in order to move the case along quickly.

Unfortunately, the function of the Grand Jury as a bulwark of liberty has drastically decreased in modern times. Why? Because with crime becoming more prevalent, grand jurors are less likely to know about the crimes or the alleged criminals than in our more rural past. Because Grand Juries operate in secret hearing only from law enforcement, they only hear one side of the case, the prosecution’s side. Neither the accused nor his attorney has the right to appear in the Grand Jury to explain his side nor to question witnesses.

The danger under our current system is that Grand Juries may become “rubber stamps” for the prosecution, not asking questions of law enforcement, not requesting additional information and approving indictments after only a few minutes of deliberation. An old saying among lawyers is: “A prosecutor may convince a Grand Jury to indict a ham sandwich.”

The other, not often used, power of the Grand Jury is to investigate crimes. This is more often used on the Federal than State level when US Attorneys issue Grand Jury subpoenas to compel witness’ testimony or the production of documents. One of the elements of most political/legal dramas in Washington is the empanelment of a Grand Jury to investigate corruption by a Special Prosecutor.

Only in certain limited circumstances may an attorney for the accused ask a court to remove the veil of secrecy from Grand Jury proceedings. To know how and when to use those circumstances requires skill and experience.

If you have issues with defending your rights, we invite you to use our skill and experience at White Law Office. 

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