Q: How does a grand jury operate?
A: In carrying out its two functions of reviewing criminal charges which have been brought by police and prosecutors and conducting investigations of possible criminal behavior, the grand jury meets in secret, behind closed doors. Its proceedings are usually one-sided, and are very different from a trial. Unlike a public trial, the accused person is not present (unless he or she is called as a witness), nor is his/her counsel present (even if he is called as a witness). Also, witnesses are not cross-examined. Not even a judge is present in the grand jury room, although a judge will be contacted if a witness refuses to answer a question and the prosecutor wishes to cite the witness for contempt.
The prosecutor presents the state's case by asking the witness questions. The grand jurors also may ask questions, but neither the actual eyewitness to an alleged crime nor the alleged victim of that crime need to appear as witnesses. The rules that apply in court to exclude most hearsay evidence (evidence provided by someone who did not actually witness the crime) do not apply in the grand jury room. Therefore, a police officer may simply testify as to what eye-witnesses and alleged victims have said.
Further, information obtained by illegal police investigation, unconstitutional surveillance, or by unreliable means, can be heard and relied upon by grand jurors, even though that information would not be admissible if the case proceeded to trial. Finally, even if a prosecutor knows of information which would help show that the accused person is innocent, he is not required to present it to the grand jury. So, while two sides are presented in a trial, it may be that only one side will be presented in a grand jury proceeding.
Grand jury proceedings usually remain secret, unless a witness chooses to disclose what happened in the grand jury room while he/she was testifying. Conclusions made by a grand jury are made known by what it does: a grand jury issues a bill of indictment if it finds probable cause to believe both that a crime has been committed and that the accused person is responsible, or a "no-bill" if it does not find probable cause. The grand jury also may issue a report at the conclusion of its term, in which its members may make recommendations about improving the justice system.
Q: What does it mean when someone is "indicted"?
A: Just because someone is indicted does not mean he or she is guilty of any crime. As described above, the grand jury process is simply a means of charging someone with a crime, and the grand jury's decisions are based merely on probable cause. The grand jury's decisions are not held to the much higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that must apply to convict a person at a trial. Further, the nature of the evidence the grand jury may rely on is quite different, and little if any defense information is presented. One can expect, therefore, that the grand jury will charge many more people than will be convicted. That is its function--to initiate and, to a limited extent, screen cases to determine which should go forward.
Q: What happens if a person is indicted?
A: An indicted person will enter a plea to the charges. If a person proceeds to trial, he or she is presumed innocent. It will then be the trial judge or jury, a different body, which will decide whether or not to convict. That decision will be made only after all of the lawfully admitted evidence from both sides has been heard and it is determined that the accused person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Law You Can Use is a consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Professor Margery B. Koosed of the University of Akron School of Law.