What is a grand jury and how does it work? - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

What is a grand jury and how does it work?

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) -

You’ve probably heard of a grand jury in the news or on TV crime shows but what exactly is a grand jury? And how is it different than a regular trial jury?

The simplest explanation is that a grand jury decides whether probable cause exists to support criminal charges for a suspect in a crime. A trial jury decides whether the prosecution or defense has the correct facts in a formal trial.

The grand jury system has been around for over 800 years. The first grand juries formed in Europe centuries ago as an extension of the King’s court. The 12 jurors would inform the sheriff of the town or court those suspected of crimes.

Currently, the U.S. is only one of two countries that use the grand jury system for preliminary hearings for serious crimes. Liberia is the only other country that uses the grand jury system.

Louisiana is one of 23 states that use grand juries for indictments in serious crimes. In 25 other states, a grand jury indictment is optional in the prosecution of serious crimes. Two states, Connecticut and Pennsylvania do not use grand juries in criminal indictments but use them for investigative purposes.   

A grand jury functions as an investigative and accusatory body of the district court. The district attorney will present a case against a suspect to the grand jury seeking. The grand jury will then decide for or against an indictment of the suspect. A suspect must be indicted for a crime before the case is taken to a formal trial.

All grand jury hearings are held in secret and jurors are sworn to secrecy during the proceedings. A judge presides over the jury selection process, but the judge does proceed over any grand jury hearings.

The only people allowed to be present in a grand jury session is the district attorney and assistant district attorneys, attorney general and assistant attorney general, grand jurors, the witness under examination, the person sworn to record the proceedings and testimony given before the grand jury, and an interpreter sworn to translate the testimony of a witness who is unable to speak the English language.

An attorney for a target of the grand jury's investigation may be present during the target’s testimony but the attorney is only allowed to consult with his or her client.

No person, other than a grand juror, can be present while the grand jury is deliberating and voting.

Grand jurors are chosen in the same manner as trial jurors except they are selected in secret and can serve a lot longer than trial juries. East Baton Rouge Parish has two regular grand juries and one special grand jury that is used by the state’s Attorney General.

Those who are picked to serve on the regular grand juries can be on duty between two and eight months. Jurors picked to serve on the special grand jury can be on duty between 12 and 18 months. Even though grand jurors are on duty for months at a time, they will only appear in court for a few days out of the month.

In Louisiana, grand jurors become officers of the court. The grand jury is just as much as an officer of the court as is the district attorney, sheriff, or judge. The grand jury has the power to review the DA’s case including requesting to review evidence and interview witnesses and even the suspect. Although the accused is usually advised by defense attorneys not to testify before the grand jury.

In some states, grand juries can have up to 23 members. In Louisiana, a grand jury is made up of 12 jurors.  Nine out of the 12 jurors must be present to constitute a quorum in order to convene.  Also, nine out of 12 jurors must agree on a decision of true bill, which is a formal indictment, or no true bill, or pretermit. A pretermit is essentially a hung grand jury, meaning a majority of grand jury members could not reach a decision.

If the grand jury reaches a pretermit, the prosecutor may present the case to the grand jury again. However, if a true bill or no true bill is reached, the prosecutor may not present the case to the grand jury again and will have to wait to present it when a new grand jury is impaneled.

A prosecutor may present any criminal case he or she wants before a grand jury. Louisiana law requires any crime that carries a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty to be presented to a grand jury before going to trial.

Like a trial jury, grand juries have a foreperson, assistant foreperson, and secretary. The foreperson and assistant foreperson are chosen at random. 

Grand juries also exist on the federal level of the court system. Federal grand juries are larger with 23 members. 12 out of 23 federal grand jury members must agree on the decision of true bill or no true bill. 

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