by Stephen Sebald
Purpose: The purpose of a grand jury investigation is to determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against a defendant. This is a first step for those accused of serious crimes. Even without an indictment, a prosecutor can still work to push the case to trial, but gaining that grand jury indictment first is a valuable step in providing security that the case does have a chance at success.
Secrecy and the Jurors: One major component of a grand jury proceeding is that all participants are sworn to secrecy regarding the court happenings. This includes jurors, attorneys and court stenographers, all of whom can be prosecuted for contempt of court if they illegally disclose any information about the proceedings.
Documents produced by any of the above participants are also classified and not available for the general public to access or read. Members of the grand jury are US citizens called upon by the state to determine of the charges and evidence are sufficient enough for a trial. They work to determine if there is probable cause for the defendant to have committed the crime for which they are accused.
One of the most important people involved with a grand jury proceeding is the Attorney for the Commonwealth, who has a huge amount of control regarding the investigation, and determining which information will be presented to the grand jury. This person controls witnesses, testimony, and the context in which information is presented to the jury, often in a way that heavily favors the prosecution.
What Makes it Different: A grand jury proceeding is more relaxed than a typical court room proceeding. There isn’t a judge present, and often no lawyers either besides the prosecutor. The jury has wide power to see any type of evidence they would like, contrary to normal courtroom rules of evidence. The secrecy kept in a grand jury proceeding ensures that witnesses do not need to fear retaliation for speaking the truth, and protects the reputation of a potential defendant in the event that the jury comes to the conclusion that they should not be indicted.
Where you’ve heard about it: The recent high-profile case of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal and surrounding fallout regarding coach Joe Paterno was one example of a Pennsylvania grand jury indictment and presentment. However, there are many parts of this and other grand jury proceedings which are not publicized on national media.
The Bottom Line: A grand jury indictment is not a ruling of guilt, but a decision that the accusations should move forward to a formalized court proceeding. If you find yourself in need of legal counsel prior to a grand jury investigation, it should still be treated with seriousness and handled by an experience criminal defense attorney. Call us at the offices of Sebald, Hackwelder, & Knox at (814) 833-1987 today to begin speaking about your case and learn how we can help you learn your best options for defense.