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27 Nov 23

The Importance of Grand Juries in Federal Criminal Cases

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 05:48 pm

The Importance of Grand Juries in Federal Criminal Cases

Grand juries play a really important role in the federal criminal justice system. They decide whether there’s enough evidence to charge someone with a felony crime – which is basically any crime punishable by over a year in prison.

So how do federal grand juries work exactly? Well first, they’re made up of 16-23 regular people, just like a trial jury. But they operate more secretly behind closed doors. Grand jurors hear evidence presented by federal prosecutors about a potential crime, and then vote on whether to bring charges. At least 12 out of the 16-23 need to agree there’s enough evidence to move forward with an indictment.

An indictment is basically the formal criminal charge brought against someone by a grand jury. It’s a big deal – it means there’s probable cause to believe someone committed a serious crime.

The fact that regular citizens (not judges or prosecutors) are the ones deciding whether to indict is really important. It helps avoid bias and abuse of power by the government. Grand juries can ask questions and do their own investigating if they want to. The Supreme Court has even called them a “protector of citizens against arbitrary and oppressive governmental action.”

Origins of Grand Juries

Grand juries go all the way back to 12th century England! The idea was that regular people could band together and accuse someone of a crime as a check on government power. Then when the American colonists were being unfairly prosecuted by the British crown, they included grand juries in the Bill of Rights to protect against oppression.

The Fifth Amendment says stuff about “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” That’s where the requirement for grand juries comes from in the U.S. Constitution.

Criticisms and Pros/Cons

But some people argue grand juries have problems and don’t function well as a safeguard on government anymore. Critics say they mostly just rubber stamp whatever charges prosecutors want these days. Out of over 150,000 cases per year, federal grand juries only refuse to indict in like 11 of them!

Plus defendants and their lawyers can’t even be in the grand jury room to defend themselves or cross-examine witnesses. Some people say it violates due process and the right to counsel. And the whole thing is totally secret – grand jurors face charges themselves if they talk about what happened.

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But supporters argue even if they mostly indict, grand juries still play an important role. Having regular citizens involved checks prosecutorial power and discretion over charging decisions. And the secrecy helps protect witnesses and avoid tipping off suspects before arrest.

Famous Cases

Some of the most famous grand jury cases have come when they refused to indict, like:

  • When a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown.
  • When a Staten Island, NY grand jury didn’t indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold.
  • In the 1946 case Beck v. Washington, the Supreme Court overturned a conviction, saying the grand jury was biased. That case helped establish that defendants can challenge indictments as unconstitutional.

Those cases sparked protests over cops getting off for killing unarmed Black men. They also highlight concerns about bias in the grand jury system.

Key Laws and Precedents

There’s some important laws and legal precedents about federal grand juries people should know too:

So those are some of the key laws and precedents governing federal grand juries. The standards for dismissing indictments are also super high thanks to cases like Beck.

What’s Next?

Debates over reforming grand juries continue today. Some want to make them more transparent or let defendants appear. Others argue they’re still a vital check on federal prosecution run amok. One thing’s sure – with roots back 800+ years, grand juries aren’t going away anytime soon! They’ll keep playing a big role in the fate of so many accused of serious federal crimes.