Your right to a Grand Jury hearing is guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet few people understand what a Grand Jury is, or what it’s for.
Yet this is a vital step in the criminal justice process, and one which could play a role in securing your freedom.
What is a Grand Jury?
The Grand Jury consists of 16 to 23 of your fellow citizens. They have one job: to determine whether the DA has enough evidence to pursue a criminal trial. If they believe the DA does, they will issue an indictment, which means you’ll move on to the next step in the process. Most likely, this will mean either a plea bargain, or a trial.
While testifying in your own jury trial is risky, it’s sometimes a very good idea to testify in front of the Grand Jury. That is because in some cases you are the only defense witness that will be called. You can request that the Grand Jury hear from other defense witnesses, but they can decline the request.
But the DA or ADA has nothing to gain by blocking you from testifying. If they do, and the Grand Jury indicts you, the indictment may be thrown out.
What are the differences between a Grand Jury hearing and a trial?
There are several key differences.
- No judge is present.
- If you aren’t going to testify, neither you nor your defense lawyer will be present.
- These hearings are conducted in secret. They’re so secret, in fact, that it’s a felony to discuss what happened during a Grand Jury hearing.
- There is a limit on the amount of time the Grand Jury has to convene once you are arrested and incarcerated. If the deadline isn’t met you must be released on your own recognizance, without any need to pay bail.
One thing is the same, at least in New York. The rules of evidence remain exactly the same as they would for a jury trial. That is important, because in some states, hearsay evidence that would be blocked at trial is permitted in a Grand Jury hearing. This is a good thing, because hearsay evidence can be extremely damaging, and paint a skewed picture of events.
Is it true Grand Juries always indict?
No. But the vast majority of them do.
The hearing is relatively one-sided. The prosecution can call as many witnesses as it wants and the Grand Jury has to listen to it all. You as the lone defender speaking up for yourself may have trouble working against all that evidence.
But this brings up another reason why testifying in a Grand Jury trial is often a good idea. You have little to lose, and it can give your defense lawyer an excellent preview of what the prosecution’s case is going to look like.
See also: When is it Smart to Take a Plea Deal?
What happens after the Grand Jury indicts?
If the Grand Jury indicts you there will be a second arraignment, where you will once again have the chance to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If you plead not guilty, the matter will proceed to a jury trial.
Thanks to recent changes in New York law, the indictment will also “start the clock” for the prosecution, who must send their evidence against you to the defense no more than 15 days after the indictment. This gives a good defense lawyer a lot of time to examine your case, prepare your case, and make recommendations for the days ahead.
In short: don’t panic if you’re indicted. The indictment is only the beginning.
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