If you're under suspicion of a serious crime at either the federal or state level, the prosecution may present its case against you to a grand jury and seek an indictment before formally charging you. This is what you need to know about this step in the prosecution's process.
Technically, the grand jury is supposed to protect you against frivolous prosecution.
If you're accused of a serious federal crime, like mail fraud, the prosecution has to seek permission to prosecute you from a special body of citizens, known as a grand jury. Most states also extend this Constitutional protection to citizens accused of serious crimes like murder at the state level as well. The idea is that a grand jury can shield innocent citizens from needless prosecution in a high-stakes matter.
However, only the prosecution gets to present any evidence to the grand jury.
A federal grand jury is made of 16 to 23 people (though the size of state grand juries varies quite a bit), and they hear information about the case in a private setting, away from public scrutiny. The prosecution will explain the law to them, present evidence, and even call witnesses to give testimony. Jury members can even ask their own questions, and prosecutors can generally present just about any evidence that they want—including evidence that wouldn't normally be allowed in a regular trial for some reason. You may even be called to testify. There's no judge involved in the process.
This often gives the prosecution a distinct advantage because there's no one to present any evidence that could create doubt in jurors' minds about someone's innocence.
So, a grand jury indictment only says that the prosecution has probable cause for a trial.
At the end of the testimony, the prosecutor will ask the grand jury for an indictment, which is permission to charge you with a crime. If the jury feels that the prosecution has a reasonable case, it will respond with a true bill—and you'll likely be formally charged with the crime within a short period of time. If the grand jury returns a no bill, the prosecution's case has fallen through.
It's important to remember that an indictment is only based on one-sided evidence, and there's still a long way to go between an indictment and a conviction. It's also important to remember that, if the indictment fails, the prosecution can bring the case back to a grand jury at a later date if new evidence is discovered that makes the prosecution's case stronger.
That means that a proactive approach on your part is best. If you're under suspicion for a serious crime, make sure that you talk to a defense attorney before you testify on your own behalf in front of a grand jury—otherwise, you may end up making the prosecution's job easier.
For more information, contact Kassel & Kassel A Group of Independent Law Offices or a similar firm.