The grand jury system dates back nearly a 1,000 years and is still largely misunderstood by the general public. Grand juries have been heralded as a buffer from overzealous prosecutors and derided as a rubber stamp for those same prosecutors. And then there’s the old joke that a prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich,” leading some to believe the system is out of date. They point to the inherently one-sided nature and say those who serve on the grand jury are pliable to the state’s whims.
Others say the secretive process protects the innocent by keeping allegations behind closed doors until there is a charge. If there is no charge, then the testimony or allegations presented are sealed or kept out of the public record. Regardless of which side one takes, the grand jury process is a fixture that dates back to medieval England.
A grand jury is a constitutional right whereby prosecutors must have the approval, in Illinois, of at least nine people of a 16-person panel. The name grand jury comes from the fact that it is a large body rather than a smaller trial jury which typically has 12 people impaneled for a criminal matter.
Its roots are from the 13th century and the Magna Carta, an English document drawn up by nobles to put limits on the power of the monarchy. In 1215, King John was forced to sign the “Great Charter.” And among the constraints within that document was the grand jury, seen then as a way to prevent willy-nilly prosecution out of spite or from political grudges.
All Felony cases must go before a grand jury or a preliminary hearing in front of a judge. The burden of proof, probable cause, is the same, but where a grand jury is secret, a preliminary hearing is held in open court and a defendant can participate.
In the grand jury, it’s the state who decides what evidence to present to grand jurors who can ask questions if they want. It is relatively one-sided in that you don’t have a right to participate nor are the witnesses subject to cross-examination.
A person could opt to testify before a grand jury to present his side but that typically doesn’t happen as that opens the door for prosecutors to ask you questions about the case. Grand juries are used on both the federal and the state levels. You don’t have a right to have an attorney if called before a federal grand jury. That’s different from the state system where your attorney can be there in the room if you are called before a grand jury, but he or she can’t help or participate.
Grand juries are often used by prosecutors for investigations. A grand jury can subpoena records or compel someone to testify; two powers that police and other investigators can’t do.
Here at Miller Law Offices, we have experience working with prosecutors on grand jury matters and our attorneys are former prosecutors. We understand what typically happens behind those closed doors. If your case is possibly a grand jury matter, come to Miller Law Offices for a consultation.