Vail Law: A quick review of the grand jury process
Anyone who reads has likely come across the term, “grand jury.” Yet other than attorneys, few people really know what a grand jury is, and what discreet and special function a grand jury serves.Grand juries are, in essence, investigative bodies. There are both federal grand juries – as was applicable in the legal travails of former President Clinton – and state grand juries, which deal with matters of state concerns and jurisdiction. The office of a grand jury, whether state or federal, investigates possible wrongdoing by the accused. The key word here is “possible.” Grand jury investigations are not trials. No conviction may directly result from a grand jury’s deliberations. Rather, the grand jury conducts a thorough inquiry into possible wrongdoing by an individual which, if found to be substantive, may result in criminal indictment against the accused which, in turn, will likely lead to a trial on the merits of the indictment.An “indictment,” by the way, is an accusation, in writing, from the grand jury to the court, charging that the person named has performed some act, or has been guilty of some omission, which, by law, is a punishable offense.Moving to trialThe grand jury may be thought of as part of a process. It is convened to ferret out information which, if found to be true, results in an indictment. The indicted person is then charged with a crime and subsequently tried. At trial, the charges must then be proved to be true in order for the person to be convicted of the crime or crimes alleged against him or her. It is key to note that a grand jury’s indictment is not proof that the alleged offense has been committed. It is simply a statement that, after investigation, sufficient grounds have been established in the grand jury’s mind to subject the person to trial. At trial, the jury may not consider the indictment as evidence against the accused.An indictment, though, is different than an “information,” an accusation exhibited against a person for an alleged criminal offense which is brought by a public official, such as a district attorney.In most states an information may be used in place of a grand jury to bring a person to trial, the grand jury being reserved for complex or unusual situations which may be more suited to the often more thorough-going investigation a grand jury may bring to bear. A good example of employing a grand jury to exhaustively investigate an unusual or complex matter was the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation in Boulder, which stalemated Boulder prosecutors for more than a year before the grand jury was convened.What’s so grand?A grand jury is so called because it is comprised of a greater number of jurors than an ordinary trial jury. By custom, the members of a grand usually serve for a fixed term (often one year) and are summoned by the sheriff to each session of the criminal courts. A federal grand jury, impaneled before any district court, consists of not less than 16, nor more than 23 persons. State grand juries often vary between 12 and 23 persons.Evidence before the grand jury is presented by a public prosecutor who is not subject to the same rules of evidence which would be incumbent upon him at trial. Since the grand jury may only accuse, not convict, the prosecutor has substantially more latitude to “go after” the accused and far fewer protections are afforded the accused.By tradition (if not always practice), the proceedings of the grand jury are strictly confidential and grand jurors are sworn to an oath of absolute secrecy. In some states, such as Colorado, disclosure of the proceedings of the grand juror is punishable by the court. Similarly, even an attempt by the press to reach a grand juror about the matters under grand jury consideration is punishable by a contempt of court proceeding against the person seeking out the juror. What’s more, the oath of secrecy persists forever – a grand juror may never disclosure the matters under deliberation. The hope and design is that in insuring secrecy, others who may later come before this or any other grand jury will speak candidly.Grand juries are an expression of democracy on the front lines and their employment and discretion helps insure that justice will be fairly and impartially served.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business & commercial transactions, real estate & development, homeowner’s associations, family law & divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO TV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at email@example.com.