The Role of Grand Juries in Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

The Role of Grand Juries in Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

When a serious crime has been committed, prosecutors will often convene a grand jury to help determine whether criminal charges should be brought. Grand juries play an important role in the criminal justice process, but there’s a lot of confusion about exactly what they do. This article will break down what grand juries are, how they operate, and their powers and limitations.

What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a group of citizens who are summoned to hear evidence presented by prosecutors and decide whether there’s probable cause to indict a person and bring them to trial for a crime.

Grand juries are provided for in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that federal prosecutions for capital or otherwise serious crimes must be initiated by a grand jury indictment. However, states are not required to use grand juries, and many states rarely use them except when investigating public corruption or other complex cases.

Why Use a Grand Jury?

Prosecutors are not required to use grand juries and can instead file charges themselves by obtaining an arrest warrant or criminal complaint. However, grand juries are often preferred for serious or complex investigations because:

  • Grand juries have subpoena power to compel witness testimony and evidence. This allows prosecutors to develop their case in secret and obtain evidence that may not be available in a preliminary hearing.
  • The grand jury process protects against overzealous prosecutors by requiring independent citizens to find probable cause. This “checks and balances” the prosecutor’s charging power.
  • Grand jury secrecy prevents tipping off the target of an investigation and allows sensitive information to remain confidential.
  • An indictment may carry more public legitimacy than charges filed unilaterally by a prosecutor.

Criticisms of Grand Juries

While grand juries serve important purposes, they have also come under criticism:

  • Grand jury secrecy means the process lacks transparency and oversight. Cases like the Michael Brown shooting have led to allegations that the secrecy allows prosecutors to improperly influence grand jurors.
  • Grand juries almost always indict if asked to do so. Federal grand juries return indictments over 99% of the time. Critics say they are merely a “rubber stamp” for prosecutors.
  • Defendants are not present or represented by counsel, leading to one-sided proceedings.
  • Critics say the low probable cause standard results in too many cases proceeding to unnecessary trials.
  • In many states, grand jury selection processes have been criticized for underrepresenting minorities.

Reforms to Grand Juries

Some reforms have been proposed to improve transparency and accountability in the grand jury process:

  • Allowing defense counsel in the grand jury room, at least for portions of the proceedings. This could prevent biased presentations by prosecutors.
  • Increasing diversity in grand jury selection to better reflect community makeup.
  • Allowing grand jury witnesses to discuss their testimony afterward, while maintaining overall secrecy of proceedings.
  • Instituting better training for grand jurors on their powers, duties, and independence.
  • Requiring a special prosecutor to be appointed in cases where there may be a conflict of interest for the prosecutor.
  • Audio or video recording of grand jury sessions to allow for limited review in cases of alleged impropriety.

Grand juries play a pivotal role in the criminal justice system, but like any process, reasonable reforms can help improve transparency and fairness. The grand jury’s fundamental purpose is sound – to have independent citizens assess probable cause – but care must be taken to prevent manipulation or misuse of these powerful investigative bodies.