The grand jury is a fundamental part of the American criminal justice system. The purpose of the grand jury is to protect individuals from being charged with serious crimes purely on the whim of an individual prosecutor. The grand jury’s protection is guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, . . .”i
In this blog post, we’ll explain what a grand jury is, how it functions, how its decision will impact an individual case, and how experienced criminal defense lawyers protect their clients in grand jury proceedings.
Our attorneys have extensive experience representing witnesses, targets, and defendants in cases involving grand juries. If you are the subject of a grand jury investigation or are subpoenaed to testify as a witness before a grand jury, contact Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, for legal advice and representation.
What Is a Grand Jury in Florida?
A grand jury is a group of citizens selected at random who are residents of the state and the county where the grand jury will be conducted. The clerk of the circuit court maintains a list of licensed Florida drivers and others who have identification issued by the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles. The grand jury is an independent arm of the court, with the prosecuting attorney acting as its legal advisor.
In Florida, the grand jury will have between 15 and 21 members, 12 of whom must agree for an indictment to be issued.
The grand jurors are sworn to a solemn oath to “diligently inquire into all matters” put before them and not “to disclose the nature or substance of deliberations.”
The grand jury’s purpose is to hear and review the evidence presented to it in a secret proceeding and then to determine whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and a certain individual is guilty of the crime.
(A statewide grand jury is similar but more rarely called into session. It has no more than 18 members and usually focuses on long-term, complex investigations.)
How Does a Grand Jury Function?
As an independent body formed for the purpose of screening evidence to determine probable cause, the grand jury is theoretically empowered to choose its own direction. However, state prosecutors virtually always guide a grand jury by presenting the witnesses and evidence they believe will convince the grand jurors to vote for an indictment.
No one is allowed in the grand jury proceeding other than the grand jury members, a prosecutor, an assisting officer, the court personnel (stenographer, clerk), and the witness who is testifying about the matter under review.
No Defense Attorney is permitted in the grand jury, even when their client is testifying as a witness. If the witness wants to consult with their lawyer during their testimony, perhaps to ask whether and how to answer a question, they must ask to be excused from the grand jury room to speak with their lawyer.
The awkwardness of this scenario often discourages grand jury witnesses from seeking their lawyer’s advice during their testimony for fear they will appear to be troublesome or uncooperative to the grand jurors.
The prosecutor presenting the case to the grand jury can summarize the theory of the case before calling the witnesses. They will then call police officers, civilian eyewitnesses, record keepers, and others they believe will provide the grand jury with the details required to prove probable cause.
At the prosecutor’s evidence is complete, the grand jurors will vote either “true bill” (indictment) or “no true bill” (no indictment).
Grand Juries Do Not Usually Hear Any Defense Evidence
As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, grand juries were originally intended to prevent innocent people from being charged with serious crimes by prosecutors without some neutral body checking the evidence.
The secrecy of grand jury proceedings is intended to shield an innocent person from any public embarrassment or scorn if the evidence is determined to be too weak or insufficient to justify an indictment or a criminal charge. Unfortunately, a person’s reputation in society can be badly damaged merely by being accused of a crime, even if they are acquitted.
The law does not require the prosecutor to present evidence of the suspect’s innocence to the grand jury unless failure to do so would amount to misleading the jury about substantial fact.
If a suspect is notified that they are the target of a grand jury investigation, they and their lawyer can decide whether to ask for an opportunity to testify at the grand jury to try to negate evidence of guilt.
However, because the grand jury only decides if there is enough evidence for the case to go forward, the grand jury can still indict the suspect/witness even if they think the witness might have been truthful in denying the charge. The level of evidence necessary to support a finding of probable cause is far lower than the prosecution will need to present at a trial to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Does it Mean When a Grand Jury Indicts Someone?
When a grand jury issues an indictment against someone, the indictment is not an indication of guilt. It is merely a notice that the grand jury determined there was enough evidence for the criminal charge to be advanced toward a trial at which a trial jury will deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
The indictment is merely a ticket to the trial courtroom.
Read More > What is a Grand Jury Indictment?
What Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Do to Help
Criminal defense lawyers devote their careers to defending people suspected of and accused of crimes. With decades of courtroom experience, a skilled criminal defense lawyer can determine whether a grand jury indictment meets the necessary legal criteria even to get to court.
Was the grand jury properly constituted as required by law?
Did the prosecutor mislead the grand jurors with unreasonably tilted evidence of guilt despite the known existence of powerful evidence of the defendant’s innocence?
Is the indictment itself drafted in language that fails to satisfy what the law requires for a charge to stand?
Get experienced criminal defense representation if you need help in a Grand Jury. Call Stechschulte Nell Law at 813-280-1244 today.