A secret indictment is an indictment that is not made public until the subject of the indictment has been arrested, notified, or released pending trial. These indictments are primarily seen in the United States, because they are issued by grand juries and most other countries do not use the grand jury in their justice system. In America, a grand jury hears the key facts of a case to decide if there is enough evidence for someone to stand trial. If they believe that a trial is warranted, they issue an indictment, a formal accusation which serves as a warning to the accused that a trial will be held.
Sometimes, it is determined that the indictment should be kept secret. This may also be known as a sealed indictment or silent indictment. In this case, the documentation surrounding the indictment is kept under seal, and no one involved may discuss the indictment outside of the grand jury hearings, or with anyone else once the hearings are over. When the seal is lifted, the contents of the indictment can be made public.
Prosecutors may request a secret indictment if they are concerned that someone may flee if he or she becomes aware that trial proceedings are being set in motion. It is also possible to ask for one to protect witnesses and other people involved with the case. If a suspected criminal is aware that grand jury hearings are occurring, the criminal may take steps to interfere with the hearings, such as intimidating witnesses or members of the grand jury. By sealing the indictment, the prosecutor ensures that the process will be safe for everyone.
Secret indictments are perfectly legal. They do not infringe upon the rights of the accused, including the right to a trial by jury and the right to hear evidence and cross-examine witnesses. Some people criticize the process because they argue that it is abused and that the information should be on the public record, but the justifications for the process often far outweigh these concerns.
The indictment will be unsealed when the government feels that it is appropriate to do so. As long as someone remains at large, the indictment typically remains sealed because the case is considered active. People who have evaded arrest must usually surrender to law enforcement before they can determine the contents of an indictment, and it is advisable for individuals to surrender with the assistance of a lawyer.