27 Nov 23

The Role of the Grand Jury in New Jersey Criminal Cases

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Last Updated on: 5th December 2023, 08:36 pm

The Role of the Grand Jury in New Jersey Criminal Cases

So you’ve been selected for grand jury duty. What exactly does that mean and what will you be doing? Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it step-by-step.

Let’s start with the basics–a grand jury is a group of 16 to 23 citizens who decide whether there is enough evidence to formally charge someone with a crime under New Jersey law. If the grand jury decides there is enough evidence, they will return an indictment. An indictment is kind of like the charging document that allows the case to move forward to trial.

The whole purpose is to act as a check on the prosecutor. Without oversight, prosecutors could potentially bring weak cases just to harass certain people. So the grand jury reviews the evidence first and acts as a gatekeeper in the system. They have to agree there is enough credible evidence before anyone is formally charged with a crime in superior court in New Jersey.

This is definitely serious stuff. Your decision could greatly impact someone’s life. The role comes with a lot of responsibility. But don’t freak out! The prosecutors and detectives will walk you through everything you need to know. And you’ll get to ask them any questions you have along the way.

What Types of Cases Does the Grand Jury Consider?

In New Jersey, the grand jury considers felony cases – these are the more serious criminal offenses. Examples include murder, robbery, aggravated assault and sex assaults. Grand juries also review indictments for drug distribution charges.

If prosecutors want to charge someone with a felony crime, they have to present evidence to a grand jury first. Misdemeanor cases, in contrast, skip the grand jury review process and prosecutors can charge those less serious offenses directly.

Step-by-Step Process

Here’s a quick rundown of how the grand jury process works:

  • You’ll meet with a group of 15 to 23 other randomly selected citizens from your county. Together you’ll form the grand jury and hear a number of cases during your service period.
  • For each case, prosecutors will provide an overview of the investigation and the law. Then detectives will testify and present exhibits.
  • You’ll get to see relevant documents and photos and ask questions during the process. Sometimes physical evidence is brought in too.
  • After hearing the evidence on a case, you deliberate in private with the other grand jury members. You’ll discuss whether there is probable cause to charge the person.
  • To return an indictment, at least 12 grand jury members must agree there is enough evidence of the crime. An indictment simply means there is enough evidence to formally accuse someone and hold a trial.
  • If you do indict, the prosecutor will prepare the formal charging document and the case moves ahead to superior court arraignment and beyond.
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Pretty straight forward, right? Just listen to the evidence and decide if there is probable cause to charge each crime presented. Ask questions if you need clarification or more information. The prosecutors are there to guide you through everything.

What Exactly is Probable Cause?

I know that term gets thrown around a lot in legal dramas. But what exactly constitutes probable cause?

At this stage, the evidence does not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt like at trial. That higher standard of proof comes later. For now, probable cause simply means the evidence would lead a reasonable person to believe the accused likely committed the particular crime.

It’s a fairly low burden of proof since the case is still early in the process. You’re just deciding if there is enough evidence to proceed with formal charges and a trial.

Grand Jury Secrecy

There’s a lot of secrecy around grand juries. The proceedings are closed to the public and only the prosecutors, grand jurors, witnesses and court reporter can attend. This allows witnesses to speak freely without fear that their testimony will be made public.

As a grand juror, you’ll be sworn to secrecy. That means you can’t talk about the cases or evidence with anyone – even after your service ends. Only if an indictment is returned will that information become public. Otherwise, everything stays under wraps.

This secrecy makes some people uneasy. But it’s key to protecting the integrity of any investigations and the reputation of someone who may be innocent. So zip those lips and let the process play out!

The Accused Doesn’t Appear

Here’s one surprising fact about grand juries – the accused person doesn’t appear or have a chance to testify. Yep, you’ll hear a lot of evidence potentially implicating someone in a crime but that person and their lawyer aren’t present to refute it.

The thinking is that at this early evidence-gathering stage, prosecutors just need to demonstrate probable cause to the grand jury. The accused will get their full day in court later on if an indictment is returned.

But without the other side of the story, be careful not to assume someone is guilty. You’re simply evaluating whether there is enough credible evidence to proceed with formal charges. Take your duty seriously and try not to rush to judgment.

The Grand Jury’s Role Is Narrow

I want to emphasize again that the grand jury’s role is pretty narrow – you’re only deciding whether there is enough evidence to formally charge the crimes presented. You do not determine guilt or innocence at this stage. That’s what the trial is for later on.

You’re also not being asked for input on what charges the prosecutor should bring. The prosecutor decides what charges to present to the grand jury for consideration. Of course, if you feel like significant potential charges are missing, you can ask the prosecutor about that in the interests of justice.

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But in general, you are not being asked to evaluate strategy or negotiate charges. Just focus on the evidence for each criminal count as it is presented to you.

An Additional Tool for Investigations

So why would prosecutors want to use the grand jury process if they don’t have to? Going to the grand jury can be a lot more work than filing charges directly themselves.

Well occasionally, prosecutors need the expansive subpoena powers of the grand jury during an ongoing criminal investigation. This allows them to gather additional documents and secure sworn testimony from witnesses who might otherwise refuse to cooperate.

So while the main purpose is reviewing evidence for indictments, the grand jury can also be a useful investigative tool when needed. As a juror, you may see complex cases that are still being actively investigated.

There are Some Criticisms

While grand juries serve an important role as a check on prosecutors, the system has come under some criticism over the years.

The biggest complaint is that grand juries nearly always return indictments if the prosecutor wants them to. The saying goes that the grand jury would even indict a ham sandwich if that’s what the prosecutor asked them to do!

The high indictment rate may suggest that grand juries don’t serve as an effective check and may simply rubber stamp the prosecutor’s wishes in most cases.

In response, others argue that the high indictment rate actually reflects the strength of evidence prosecutors choose to present. If the cases were really that weak, why would prosecutors want to proceed with the time-consuming grand jury process? There are valid points on both sides.

There have also been concerns raised about racial bias influencing grand jury decisions. Of course, bias can potentially infect all parts of the criminal justice system. Ensuring a diverse grand jury is one way the court system tries to mitigate this issue.

As with any human process, the grand jury system is imperfect. But with engaged citizens serving as jurors, it’s likely the best method we currently have for bringing serious charges.

Grand Juries Play a Pivotal Role

While not without some controversy, grand juries play an important gatekeeping function in New Jersey’s justice system. They are a critical checkpoint between an investigation and a criminal trial.

As a grand juror, you’ll get to dive into the evidence and ask tough questions. You are serving as the voice of the community and helping to uphold the integrity of the criminal process.

It’s a lot of responsibility but also a unique opportunity to impact justice in your county. Listen to the testimony and deliberations with an open yet discerning mind. Weigh the evidence carefully while being conscious of any biases.

If you approach the process thoughtfully, you can help ensure only meritorious cases move forward while protecting the rights of the accused. That’s no small contribution to society!

So be proud of your role but also take it seriously. And if you still have questions or concerns along the way, make sure to ask the prosecutors. They are there to guide you through this vital process that helps balance the scales of justice.