The Function And Role Of The Grand Jury In America’s Criminal Justice System
From time to time, criminal cases capture the nation?s attention and all eyes turn to the United States criminal justice system. ?The most recent such case is out of Ferguson, Missouri and involves the shooting death of?Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. ?The case has garnered an enormous amount of attention worldwide and sparked consistent debate on issues of race and police use of force.
In the moments and days following the?late night announcement last week by Prosecutor Robert McCullough?that the Grand Jury decided to not indict Officer Wilson, it became readily apparent on social media that many people commenting on this case had many questions regarding the function and role of the Grand Jury in our criminal justice system. ?Whether or not you believe that Officer Wilson is guilty (of something) or he acted completely within the scope of his employment, it is important that more citizens have a better understanding of how our criminal justice system works. ?A large percentage of the confusion may be attributable to the fact that what occurred in Ferguson doesn?t match what typically occurs in this country on a daily basis in hundreds of courthouses. ?The purpose of this post is to give an overview of how Grand Juries typically work and compare/contrast that to what we have heard about the proceedings in Ferguson.
Darren Wilson Was Not Acquitted Of Any Wrongdoing.?? What was announced last week was not a jury verdict that found Officer Wilson not guilty. ?In fact, the decision of the Grand Jury to not indict Officer Wilson means that he likely will not face criminal charges related to this incident in the State of Missouri. ?(There is an outside chance that the Department of Justice may act in this matter ? but the fundamentals?of that happening requires?its own blog post). ?The sole function of the Grand Jury is to accuse, not to convict. ?To achieve this goal, the Grand Jury considers bills of indictment prepared by the prosecution to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to indict. The indictment does not create any presumption that the person accused is guilty of the offense charged or any lesser offense. ?The charge(s) must be proved at some later date before a judge or jury, beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Prosecutor Did Not Have?To Prove The Case To The Grand Jury ?Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.???Because the Grand Jury only accuses and does not convict, the lower standard of probable cause is required. ?The standard of probable cause is a much lower one than beyond a reasonable doubt. ?In the simplest terms, ?Probable Cause? is sufficient evidence to give a reasonable person cause to believe that a person committed a crime. ?It is the same standard needed to give a police officer grounds to make an arrest. ??Beyond a reasonable doubt? is the standard needed to ?convict? a person of a crime and is a much higher standard of proof. ?The reason for the gap is that it requires a higher standard of proof to PROVE that someone committed a crime than just to accuse them of it.
The Prosecutor Was Not Required To Present Any Conflicting Testimony Or Evidence To The Grand Jury. ?The law does not require that the prosecution present to the Grand Jury any evidence that may prove the accused innocent or any evidence that would establish an affirmative defense on behalf of the accused. ?The Supreme Court held in United States v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36 (1992), that the government is not required to disclose to the Grand Jury the existence of any?exculpatory evidence. ?Many reports suggest that Mr. McCullogh advised the Grand Jury that if they found specific things were true, they could not return an indictment against Officer Wilson because those circumstances would amount to an absolute defense for the officer. ?The Grand Jury is not charged with testing the strength of any potential defense that the accused may present.
The Grand Jury Did Not Have A Trial.??While the word ?jury? is used, the Grand Jury is nothing like what we see on television or read about in legal thrillers. ?The Grand Jury does not have to return a unanimous vote. ?Most states only require a majority vote. ?Furthermore, what occurs before the Grand Jury is not like a trial in the sense that it is not an adversarial process. ?In the overwhelming majority of Grand Jury proceedings, the accused is not present, nor is their lawyer. Often, no evidence is presented on the behalf of the accused. ? The Grand Jury only considers the evidence that the prosecution decides to present. ?In most instances, the Grand Jury proceeding is only a formality as the prosecution puts forward all of the ?bad? evidence and nothing else.
The Accused Is Usually Not Present And Certainly Does Not Testify Before The Grand Jury.??Until last week, the concept?of a person suspected of a crime testifying before the Grand Jury in their own defense was so foreign that even?John Grisham?wouldn?t try to slide it into a fictional novel. ?The primary reason is that the accused, if charged, has a Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and can not be compelled to provide testimony against him or herself. ?Most defense attorneys will fight to ensure that their client doesn?t make any under oath statements in advance of trial. ?The standard of proof before the Grand Jury is so low, that fighting the case at that stage makes little to no sense. ?Under common law, the accused does not have the right to appear before the Grand Jury, nor does the accused have the right to have the Grand Jury consider evidence on his or her behalf.
The Evidence Presented To The Grand Jury Is Not Typically Made Known To The Public.??In almost a decade of practicing criminal defense, I have never personally seen Grand Jury proceedings. ?Traditionally, Grand Jury proceedings are conducted in secrecy. ?Criminal law treatises suggest that this is for a number of reasons, including (1) encouraging witnesses to speak freely and without fear of retaliation, (2) to prevent the accused from fleeing prosecution if an indictment is returned, and (3) to protect the reputation of the accused in case the Grand Jury does not decide to indict. ?The release of Grand Jury testimony and evidence in the Mike Brown case is rather unique.
The world may never know exactly what happened in the brief encounter between Mike Brown and Officer Darren Wilson. ?The outcome has been tragic for all involved. ?Hopefully the national attention that this case has received will cause more people to educate themselves on our criminal justice system. ?Before people can engage in a meaningful discussion about whether or not the criminal justice system ?failed? in this case, it is imperative that those involved in the debate have a clear understanding of how the criminal justice system is designed to work.