A grand jury indictment is a formal, written charge issued by a grand jury in a criminal case. Typically, the jury is charged with determining whether enough evidence exists to charge a suspect with a criminal offense. The jury usually consists of 12 average people who are randomly selected. The use of a grand jury indictment is intended to ensure that a prosecutor brings a case to trial only if there is probable cause to support the crime was committed by a suspect.
Historically, a grand jury indictment was used for determining whether to bring criminal charges in a number of common law countries. For example, England, Australia, and Canada all used grand juries during the twentieth century. In modern times, such indictments occur primarily in the United States. Only some of the states, however, still use these indictments in prosecuting crimes. They are also used in the United States if federal charges are brought in a criminal case.
By and large, grand juries decide whether enough evidence exists for a suspect to be taken to trial. Grand jury proceedings are usually required to be kept confidential. In most grand jury indictment proceedings, a prosecutor presents evidence in the form of witness testimony. As a general rule, the prosecutor can subpoena any potential witness to provide testimony without showing that the witness is likely to have relevant information about the crime. Certain types of witnesses, such as a spouse or the suspect’s criminal lawyer, can sometimes claim a specific privilege in order to avoid answering the prosecutor’s questions.
Typically, the suspect and his or her criminal attorney are not present during the grand jury testimony. As a result, they usually do not have the opportunity to present any conflicting evidence. If a suspect wishes to testify, however, a prosecutor may permit the testimony.
If the grand jury determines that the case may be brought to trial, they issue a “true bill” decision, and the suspect is formally charged with the alleged crime. A “no true bill” decision is issued when the jury decides insufficient evidence exists for a criminal trial. The grand jury indictment itself is usually drafted by the prosecutor and simply approved by the jury. If a grand jury fails to indict a suspect, a prosecutor may try to indict the suspect again, using a second grand jury, although this practice is uncommon.
Jurisdictions that no longer use grand jury indictments in charging a crime usually have a preliminary hearing. At the hearing, the prosecution presents evidence relating to the crime to a criminal law judge. The judge then determines whether sufficient evidence exists for trial.