Most people know what happens during a criminal trial, but very few understand what happens during grand jury indictment proceedings. The purpose of a grand jury is to decide whether or not to indict a suspect for the charges that the prosecution wants to bring.
Grand juries are “secret” proceedings during which witnesses can give testimony without the presence of the suspect or his defense attorney. It is more informal than a trial, and witnesses are allowed to tell “stories” or give long explanations rather than simply answering the prosecutor’s questions.
First, the prosecutor will give an opening statement to the grand jury and give reasons why he or she feels there is sufficient evidence to indict. The grand jury will be given a “bill”, which details the charges against the suspect, and will explain any extenuating circumstances that give him or her reason to request an indictment.
Usually, prosecutors present only the minimum amount of evidence to secure an indictment. Since the defense attorney will have access to the grand jury transcript after an indictment has been returned, the prosecutor will not want to show his or her “full hand” until a trial date has been set. In most cases, evidence presented before a grand jury consists of testimony from witnesses and, in some cases, expert witnesses.
Before the grand jury indictment proceedings begin, the prosecutor will have notified all witnesses who must appear. Witnesses who fear that they might be under investigation have the right to refuse any questions the prosecutor asks. However, most prosecutors are smart enough to call only witnesses who can truly help their cause for indictment.
Although the suspect and his or her defense attorney will not be present while the prosecutor delivers evidence, he or she can claim the right to testify in front of the grand jury. This is usually not favorable for the defense, but if they believe that the suspect can inspire sympathy from the grand jury, they may decide that it is a viable option.
The suspect will give his or her account of what happened leading up to the crime, and will give reasons why he or she should not be indicted. The defense attorney is not allowed in the grand jury during this testimony, but the suspect can leave the grand jury room at any time to request the counsel of an attorney. Once the testimony has been given, the prosecutor can cross-examine the suspect to try and refute his or her statements.
The grand jury is given as much time as they need to indict, and when they have concluded their discussion, they will return a “true bill” or a “no-bill”. A true bill means that the grand jury has recommended indictment, while a no-bill means that they do not feel that there is sufficient evidence to indict.