Understanding how a grand jury works

At Engle, Kauffman & VanHorn, P.C., in Pennsylvania, one of the things we do every day is to aggressively defend the rights of people charged with a crime after a grand jury has made its recommendation to prosecute.

FindLaw explains that unlike your ultimate jury trial where a 12-member jury must find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict you, a grand jury meets while you still remain only a suspect. Its purpose is to help the prosecutor decide whether or not to prosecute you.

Grand jury make-up

In Pennsylvania, 23 people make up the grand jury with from seven to 15 alternates. They meet in secret, sometimes for months on end. They have the power to look at virtually all types of evidence and to interrogate whomever they wish as witnesses. The normal rules of evidence do not apply. Nor does the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof.

Grand jury procedure

If you are called to testify before a grand jury, you must appear. But you also can have your attorney present with you. Be aware, however, that (s)he cannot make objections, arguments or address either the grand jury or the prosecutor. And while you have the constitutional right against self-incrimination, you do not have the right to refuse to appear before a grand jury or to remain silent when you do. While you can still assert your Fifth Amendment rights, the judge can hold you in contempt if (s)he believes that your assertion is not legitimate.

The prosecutor uses the grand jury process as a test trial. If the grand jury agrees with his or her view of your case’s strength, it will issue a presentment and the prosecutor will formally charge you. In some cases, the grand jury itself can issue an indictment, which takes the place of your preliminary trial.

Grand jury confidentiality

Theoretically, grand jury proceedings are secret. However, witnesses typically can disclose their own testimony unless the prosecutor asks the judge to issue a gag order and (s)he grants this request.

For more information, please visit this page on our website.