What is a Grand Jury and How Does it Work? Criminal charges most often are brought directly by a prosecutor against a defendant. This is typically in the form of a Complaint. However certain crimes require charging by indictment. In Minnesota, offenses punishable by life imprisonment (we don’t have the death penalty), like first-degree murder, may be prosecuted only by indictment. A grand jury is a panel of citizens empaneled by a prosecutor with the assistance of the Court to determine if there are sufficient grounds, called probable cause, to charge a defendant with a crime. In Minnesota a Grand Jury is at least 16 people. A vote by the grand jury that probable cause exists results in the jury “indicting” that person. An indictment is the actual legal document stating that there is probable cause that a particular person has committed a particular crime and as a result that defendant should be brought before the court to answer for that crime. A grand jury does not try the actual criminal case.
Grand juries operate in secret to preserve the ability of the jury to hear unbiased versions of the evidence and make a fair decision. Some critics view the grand jury system as defective because only the government presents evidence – the odds are essentially stacked in favor of the prosecutor who is seeking the indictment. The Five Thirty Eight blog reported that based on 2010 statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for 162,000 federal grand jury proceedings, only 11 cases failed to return a “true bill” or an indictment charging the defendant with the crime. An interesting twist in the Ferguson situation is that the prosecutor empaneled a grand jury with the design of having the jury vote not to indict the police officer. As a result of recent uproar about the grand jury system, many are stating that charges should simply be brought and allow the criminal process to move forward with the court and criminal jury receiving evidence from both sides – the government and the defendant – so as to ensure a just result. Given the inherent close connection between prosecutors and police officers which can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest, it would not be surprising to see legislation requiring charging without a grand jury in the case of alleged crimes by law enforcement officials.