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What is a True Bill?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A true bill is an indictment which has been presented to a grand jury and endorsed as valid. When the grand jury determines that an indictment is a true bill, it means that the grand jury believes that the charges have merit and the accused should be brought to court to answer to them. By contrast, a grand jury can return a “no bill” or “bill of ignoramus” when it does not agree with an indictment and believes that a case should not proceed to trial because there is not enough available evidence to support the charges as they stand.

Worldwide, the practice of using a grand jury is in decline. In nations that still use a grand jury, when prosecutors wish to bring charges in criminal courts, they must first bring the charges to the grand jury in the form of an indictment. The grand jury is presented with evidence and the members of the jury must decide whether or not there is a probability that the accused committed the crime in question. If the grand jury agrees with the prosecutor, it endorses the indictment and the case proceeds to trial.

The grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence in a case, and thus a true bill is not a conviction, only an endorsement of the charges that were presented to the grand jury. A written statement indicating that an indictment is a true bill confirms that a crime has taken place and that the person a prosecutor has accused is a likely suspect. If the grand jury cannot agree on this, it will return a written decision of “no bill.”

A true bill endorsement must be signed by the foreperson of the grand jury. The foreperson represents the grand jurors and confirms that they deliberated on the indictment and agreed that the charges were valid.

Grand jury proceedings may be closed if there are concerns about the safety or security of a case. Secret or sealed indictments are sometimes used to indict criminals who are not aware that they are under investigation. In these cases, being notified about a grand jury indictment would tip a criminal off, so the event is kept secret in order to avoid compromising a case or investigation. There may also be concerns about the safety of grand jurors, in which case an indictment may be kept secret so that their identities will not be disclosed.

Maintaining Grand Jury Integrity

Grand juries help ensure that people get a fair trial by determining that the evidence is sufficient to bring criminal charges against a defendant. The prosecutor in the case is responsible for running the proceedings of a grand jury. First, the prosecutor presents the evidence and tries to convince the jury that a trial should occur.

The responsibility placed on a grand jury is enormous. Jurors must determine if someone will face charges for a serious offense. If they return a true billed indictment, the defendant will face the prosecution’s charges in a court of law and risk being found guilty. A final guilty verdict in a felony case can carry life-changing consequences for the defendant. Even if someone is found innocent of any crime, the public nature of a criminal trial can harm the person's reputation.

The judge charges the grand jury with listening to the prosecutor’s reasons and evidence for desiring to bring charges. If the jurors agree enough evidence exists, the indictment will be true billed. The judge also instructs them to leave preconceived ideas about the defendant and the law outside the proceedings. Instead, the court requires them to only focus on the evidence presented by the prosecution.

Since grand juries deal with individuals who have potentially broken the law, legal authorities have put safeguards into place to guard the veracity of the system. Special indictments, such as sealed ones, are one way investigators have of ensuring that the charges brought against individuals are fair and warranted.

Another safety measure used by grand juries is the vow of secrecy. All jurors swear to keep all proceedings of the grand jury secret. They also promise to keep their judgment unclouded by avoiding any media coverage and discussion of similar cases. To ensure that the defendant receives fair treatment, jurors must do their best to eliminate any preconceived notions and work only with the evidence and the specifics of the law described to them during the proceedings.

The vow of secrecy can also keep suspects from fleeing to avoid having prosecutors file charges. Knowing they will be protected can also encourage witnesses to come forward and willingly testify. However, fear of possible reprisals from the defendant can discourage those with evidence from telling what they know.

Finally, since the grand jury process exists to protect the innocent from spurious charges against them, the vow of secrecy can help save a defendant’s reputation. In cases where the grand jury finds a lack of sufficient evidence to true bill the indictment, the names and any evidence are protected from exposure.

When an Indictment Is True Billed

The grand jury is not trying to determine if the defendant committed the crime in question. Instead, the jurors try to decide if anyone committed a crime and if enough evidence is present to accuse the defendant. An accusation is far different from a guilty verdict, but it is still significant enough to have long-lasting effects on the accused’s life.

When seven of the nine members of the grand jury vote that enough evidence exists in a case to go to trial, they are said to have true billed the indictment. Once the jury presents the indictment, the court orders that the defendant be notified of the charges. The officially indicted defendant can now start seeking council and planning a defense to the charges.

If the defendant is in jail, the judge may set bail or carry over bail set during the previous stage. The defendant is now under a different set of rules. Before the indictment is true billed, the defendant is a suspect but not charged with a crime. This stage allows prosecutors and law enforcement to conceal evidence as they build their cases.

Once the grand jury returns a true billed indictment, full disclosure rules engage. Now, the defense attorney can examine all evidence to build a sound defense. Moreover, after the prosecution has filed formal charges on the defendant, the requirement of “innocent until proven guilty” replaces “enough evidence to proceed.”

As a person officially charged with a crime, the defendant must now work with a defense attorney to learn as much about the charges, the evidence and other possible scenarios that would help to prove innocence.

The prosecution has proven that someone has committed a crime, and there is sufficient evidence to suggest the defendant named in the case. The prosecutors must now begin constructing a case that will convince another jury that the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ceilingcat — On Sep 16, 2011

@indemnifyme - I agree with you. I think there is definitely a place in our legal system for a grand jury.

I'm not quite sure I agree with charges going in front of a grand jury before the person who is accused hears about them. I mean, I understand that they don't want to tip criminals off. But it just seems unfair to totally blindside someone with charges without giving them any time to get a lawyer or anything!

By indemnifyme — On Sep 16, 2011

I think a grand jury should definitely be used if someone is going to be tried for a serious crime, such as murder. I think it's worthwhile to have one more group of people examine the evidence before a person has to stand trial.

Even if you are found innocent, even being accused of a serious crime could ruin your reputation. So I'm glad this kind of protection exists!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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