Jan 22, 2015

Understanding the Grand Jury System, Part 1: Federal Grand Juries

In this three part series on grand juries in the USA, Houston, Texas criminal attorney George Parnham explains a little understood part of our criminal justice system.
In certain federal and state crimes, a grand jury is convened to review evidence and hear witness testimony in order to determine if an individual should be indicted. This process is a mystery to most defendants, and even many attorneys are unfamiliar with how to handle the grand jury process.

The "grand jury" was instituted in England about the middle of the twelfth century, intended to determine cause for criminal prosecution. Though originally intended to hold the local community responsible for bringing its malefactors to justice, it has come to be regarded over the centuries as a safeguard against unwarranted prosecution and was incorporated into the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger..."

Individuals subject to grand jury proceedings do not have a constitutional right to counsel in the grand jury room, nor do they have a right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Additionally, individuals in grand jury proceedings can be charged with holding the court in contempt (punishable with incarceration for the remaining term of the grand jury) if they refuse to appear before the jury. All evidence is presented by a prosecutor in a cloak of secrecy, as the prosecutor, grand jurors, and the grand jury stenographer are prohibited from disclosing what happened before the grand jury unless ordered to do so in a judicial proceeding.

Grand jury proceedings are secret. No judge is present; the proceedings are led by a prosecutor; and the defendant has no right to present his case or (in many instances) to be informed of the proceedings at all. While court reporters usually transcribe the proceedings, the records are sealed. The grand jury can compel a witness to testify, but the target of a grand jury investigation has no right to testify or put on a defense.

The most persistent criticism of grand juries is that jurors are not a representative sampling of the community, and are not qualified for jury service because they do not possess a satisfactory ability to ask pertinent questions, or sufficient understanding of local government and the concept of due process. Unlike potential jurors in regular trials grand jurors are not screened for bias or other improper factors. They are rarely read any instruction on the law. The prosecutor drafts the charges and decides which witnesses to call, and is not obliged to present evidence in favor of those being investigated. The jurors job is only to judge on what the prosecutor produced.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the grand jury has come under increasing criticism for being a mere "rubber stamp" for the prosecution without adequate procedural safeguards. Critics argue that the grand jury has largely lost its historic role of protecting citizens from unfounded accusations by the government; they provide little protection to accused suspects and are much more useful to prosecutors.   Grand jurors often hear only the prosecutor's side of the case and are usually persuaded by them: they almost always indict people on the prosecutor's recommendation.

If you have been accused of a serious crime in the state of Texas, you need a reliable and experienced attorney. Visit http://www.parnhamandassociates.com for information on your rights.

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