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What are grand jury proceedings and how do they impact criminal cases?

Readers have undoubtedly heard about the recent decisions in Missouri and New York not to prosecute officers accused of killing unarmed African American men. In both cases, grand juries declined to issue indictments of the officers involved in the incidents. Readers have also heard that these cases have sparked a great deal of anger and protest across the United States. These cases being as contentious as they are, we will avoid offering any comments, but we do want to look briefly at what exactly a grand jury proceeding is and how it fits into the criminal defense process.

Grand juries are sometimes used at both the state and federal level in order to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to issue criminal charges. Prosecutors are essentially given the opportunity to present the evidence in support of charges, which is evaluated by a grand jury which votes on the issue of whether the evidence supports the proposed charges. 

Unlike some other states, grand juries in Maryland do not hear evidence in favor of the defendant, and it is important to be clear that the process does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. Grand juries don’t necessary have to reach a unanimous decision, either, but the rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as to the degree of majority needed. Further, the outcome of a grand jury investigation does not determine whether or not prosecutors are allowed to bring a criminal case. Even if a grand jury declines to indict a defendant, prosecutors may still choose to bring a case to trial.

Even if grand jury proceedings don’t determine guilt, there are certain advantages for prosecutors who are able to obtain an indictment. For one thing, they can usually get to trial more quickly than when they don’t have an indictment. Grand jury investigations, for prosecutors, are also a way to test the strength of the evidence in their case, which can carry over to the trial phase.

Criminal defendants who are not indicted by a grand jury, by the same token, obtain a certain advantage in not being charged at the outset of the criminal process, but it is still important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney moving forward to ensure one’s legal rights are protected.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Thousands Protest Across Country After Eric Garner Grand-Jury Decision,” Adam Janos, Dec. 5, 2014.

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