The Grand Jury is an important element of the US judicial system. Over the month of June, it suddenly came into the spotlight again when it was decided that both the Ferguson, MI and Staten Island, NY police departments would not indict their officers in relation to the shooting of unarmed black civilians. According to Adam M Smith, this sent some tremendous shockwaves through men and women in the affected district and beyond. This is mainly due to a lack of understand of the role of the grand jury, however. Hence, he felt it was important to answer some frequently asked questions, thereby hopefully reducing some tensions as well.
Adam M Smith on the Difference between Grand and Regular Jury
A grand jury is made up of between 12 and 23 men and women who investigate criminal behaviors. Specifically, it decides whether or not criminal charges should be made. Regular juries are made up of between six and 12 people and is also known as the “Petit Jury”. They decide on the facts and whether or not someone is guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal matter, or by preponderance of evidence in a civil matter.
How Do People Get Selected for the Grand Jury and What Do They Do?
Grand jury members are selected at random, just as regular juries. People receive a notice of service. Fewer questions are asked during selection of grand juries, however, with judges only needing to determine they can be fair and impartial. Usually, those on the grand jury serve for between six months and a year, a couple of days per week. They hear lots of different cases, usually relating to felon offenses, and determine, without a judge, witnesses, or defendants, whether or not a case can be brought forward. Some questions can be asked, but not by the defense attorney.
When Can the Prosecution Ask for the Grand Jury to Decide?
The prosecutor can take a case in front of a grand jury if:
- They have not arrested an individual but have sufficient evidence for a “no arrest indictment”, which means an arrest warrant will be created.
- They have arrested an individual, who is presented to the grand jury within a week.
- They have arrested an individual and a plea bargain has failed.
- They have not arrested anyone but still present the case so that they can arrest the individual because they know of their whereabouts.
Why Were the Police Officers Not Indicted?
It is standard practice to refer cases involving a police officer to a grand jury, although it is not law. To indict someone, the grand jury had to believe probably cause existed, which means criminal charges can be brought forward. This is a very low standard to meet, which is why most cases in front of a grand jury do indeed go to trial. However, police officers have something called “qualified immunity”, which means they can use a gun when on duty. Furthermore, there is a significant conflict of interest because the police department is part of the prosecutor’s office.