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27 Nov 23

The Role of the Grand Jury in Long Island Criminal Cases

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Last Updated on: 6th December 2023, 11:06 pm

The Grand Jury: A Critical Step in Long Island Criminal Cases

When a person stands accused of a felony crime in Long Island, New York, the case must go before a grand jury before it can proceed to trial. This little-understood body plays a crucial role in the criminal justice process. So what exactly does the grand jury do, and why does it matter so much? Let’s break it down.

What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a panel of 16 to 23 citizens tasked with deciding whether enough evidence exists to formally charge someone with a felony crime. Prosecutors present witnesses and evidence to the grand jury, which then votes on whether to issue an indictment allowing the case to move ahead.

The grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence – that’s the job of a trial jury. Instead, its role is to act as a check on the prosecutor’s power to ensure people aren’t charged lightly. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote, “the grand jury sits not to determine guilt or innocence, but to assess whether there is adequate basis for bringing a criminal charge.”

Why Do We Have Grand Juries?

The right to a grand jury indictment for serious crimes is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers saw grand juries as an important safeguard against government overreach. Requiring prosecutors to present evidence to citizens prevents people from being subjected to criminal trials based on flimsy evidence.

As Scalia noted, “the whole theory of [the grand jury’s] function is that it belongs to no branch of the institutional government, serving as a kind of buffer or referee between the Government and the people.” So while grand juries are far from perfect, they provide an independent review before the state brings its full powers against an individual through a criminal prosecution.

The Grand Jury Process on Long Island

In New York, grand juries consist of between 16 and 23 people selected from the county where the crime occurred. For example, if a crime happened in Suffolk County on Long Island, the grand jury would be drawn from Suffolk County residents. Grand jurors in New York serve for a month at a time hearing a variety of cases.

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The District Attorney’s office oversees empaneling each grand jury, a process designed to create a fair cross-section of the local community. People from all walks of life serve: teachers, doctors, mechanics, retirees, etc. The only requirements are U.S. citizenship and residence in the county.

Grand jury proceedings are strictly secret and only the prosecutor, witnesses, and a stenographer may be present. The accused person and their attorney cannot attend. Hearings usually take place in an ordinary conference room or office, unlike the ornate courtrooms used for public trials.

The prosecutor runs the show, calling witnesses and presenting documents and physical evidence. Police officers often testify about the investigation and arrest. Forensic experts may describe DNA or fingerprint testing linking the defendant to the crime.

After hearing the evidence, the grand jurors vote in private on whether or not to indict. An indictment requires agreement from 12 out of the 16 to 23 members that probable cause exists. If a majority finds probable cause lacking, they can vote a “no bill of indictment,” meaning no criminal charges will be brought.

Why Grand Juries Almost Always Indict

Given their vital role as a check on prosecutorial power, you might expect grand jury indictments to be far from guaranteed. But in reality, federal grand juries indict over 99% cases presented to them. And New York state grand juries indict around 96% of cases – including 98% in Suffolk County.

Critics argue that grand jury hearings unfairly favor the prosecution’s side of the story. With no judge or opposing counsel present, DAs face little pressure to present exculpatory evidence. And since jurors only hear the prosecutor’s version, indictments become virtually automatic in most cases.

There’s also a basic human tendency to think there’s no smoke without fire. If the DA takes the trouble to present a case, jurors assume there must be something to it.

So while grand juries theoretically provide oversight and protect individuals from unfounded charges, they seldom serve as a real check on the state in practice. Their lopsided indictment rates certainly call into question how much independence they truly exercise from prosecutors.

Fighting Back Against Weak Grand Jury Cases

Just because grand juries almost always indict doesn’t mean the case against you is solid. Weak cases do slip through even with the grand jury process in place.

If you’ve been indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury but believe the evidence is lacking, an aggressive criminal defense attorney can fight back. Options include:

  • File a motion to dismiss – You can challenge the legal sufficiency of the charges and ask the judge dismiss the indictment before trial. For example, if the alleged acts don’t meet the elements of the crime charged.
  • Seek a preliminary hearing – In New York, those indicted by a grand jury can request an evidentiary hearing before a judge. This offers a chance to test the evidence and cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. Exposing flaws can lead to reduced or dismissed charges.
  • Take it trial – Even flawed grand jury cases often end in plea bargains to avoid the risk of trial. But sometimes your best defense is to put the state to their proof in front of a trial jury. Their verdict supersedes the grand jury’s in any event. And you just might win.
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Bottom line – never assume an indictment means you don’t have strong defenses. A good lawyer can stand up to overzealous prosecutors, even when the grand jury process fails to do so.

The Grand Jury Plays a Pivotal Role

The grand jury system draws justified criticism for its one-sidedness and high indictment rates. However, abolishing grand juries would concentrate even more unreviewed power in the hands of prosecutors.

The Supreme Court continues to uphold the grand jury process because its fundamental purpose remains sound. Lay citizens should review felony charges before the state imposes the burdens of a full-blown criminal prosecution.

Grand juries could certainly use reform, including allowing defense attorneys in the room. But they fill an important niche in placing a modest check on prosecutorial discretion. So despite flaws, the grand jury continues to play a pivotal role in our criminal justice system, including here on Long Island