Protesters were outraged about two recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the killings of unarmed black men. What exactly is a grand jury and an indictment? CCTV America’s Jim Spellman reported from Washington, D.C.
What is a grand jury and how does it work?Protesters were outraged about two recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the killings of unarmed black men. What exactly is a grand jury and an indictment? CCTV America’s Jim Spellman reported from Washington, D.C.
When prosecutors believe a serious crime has been committed a grand jury may be used to determine if there is enough evidence to go forward with a trial.
The federal government and about half of the 50 U.S. states use grand juries. They generally consist of about 23 people and only hear evidence the prosecutor chooses to present. There is no judge and no attorney representing the accused. The proceedings are generally kept secret. If the grand jury feels there is enough evidence it votes for an indictment, and the case moves forward.
Who sits on grand juries?
Regular citizens are randomly chosen from the same pool that makes up trial juries. They have no legal training.
Grand juries typically convene for months at a time, but only meet occasionally. They usually decide on many cases during that time. Grand jurors are not screened for biases or conflicts the way juries are for trials.
How is this different than a trial jury?
A trial jury in a criminal case needs to find a defendant guilty “Beyond a reasonable doubt” but a grand jury simply needs to determine there is “probable cause” to proceed to trial. It does not decide guilt or punishment. A trial jury needs to make a unanimous decision, a grand jury typically only needs a majority of the jurors for an indictment.
It’s considered so easy for prosecutors to convince a grand jury that a New York judge once said a grand jury will “Indict a Ham Sandwich” meaning almost anything prosecutors want they get from a grand jury.
So why is it so hard to indict police officers?
Many things they do — from speeding in their police cars to using their weapons would be illegal if a civilian did them so police automatically have what’s called “qualified immunity.”
Usually, the police and the prosecutors work together building a case. Critics of this process say when a police officer is a suspect in a crime the prosecutors and the police are too close to each other and there is no one in the grand jury system advocating for the victim.