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What are grand juries and how do they work?

The American public has been reckoning with difficult questions about the limits of law enforcement authority. In at least two separate incidents this year, white police officers have killed young, African-American men during altercations over petty offenses. In both cases, grand juries were convened and failed to indict the officers involved.

While the incidents and the grand jury decisions will remain highly controversial, we’d like to focus this week’s post on grand juries themselves. We’ll discuss what a grand jury is, when it gets used and how it differs from a trial jury.

Let’s start with the last point. A criminal trial jury usually consists of six to 12 people chosen to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crimes with which he has been charged. They hear evidence presented by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

A grand jury, on the other hand, can range from between 16 to 23 people. Its job is not to give a final determination of guilt or innocence, but rather to help a prosecutor determine if criminal charges should be filed at all (based on available evidence). Prosecutors in most cases have the authority to make this decision on their own, but they may convene a grand jury when a case is particularly high-profile or controversial.

Grand juries don’t hear all evidence. Typically, judges and criminal defense lawyers are not present during proceedings. Jurors will be instructed on the law in question, and will be presented with evidence and testimony deemed relevant to the case.

If two-thirds or three-fourths of the grand jury (depending on the jurisdiction) decides that criminal charges are appropriate, the suspect can and likely will be indicted. If the jury cannot reach a supermajority of votes to indict, criminal charges will usually not be pursued.

In theory, grand juries are a safeguard against prosecutorial bias. Whether or not they are effective in this regard is a matter of much debate. Hopefully, these high-profile cases in the news will prompt a much larger discussion about grand juries as well as the relationship between prosecutors and police officers.

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Meet Attorney Guillory

Attorney Joshua S. Guillory was born in Alexandria, Louisiana. Upon graduating high school from Alexandria Senior High, he enrolled in classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree. Josh was a member of Mu Kappa Tau, a national honor society for marketing majors, while attending... Read More

Joshua S. Guillory

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