The recent decision in Ferguson, Missouri, by a grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown has made headlines across the nation. It also has a lot of people wondering what exactly a grand jury is, and what a grand jury’s role is in the criminal justice system.
Grand juries are used both at the state and federal levels. How a grand jury works in a state court system is up to the individual state. Generally speaking, the purpose of a grand jury is to review evidence of possible criminal behavior and decide if enough evidence exists to try someone for a crime.
Ohio has a grand jury system that typically is used to decide whether probable cause exists to indict someone for a felony crime. Local prosecutors usually decide whether someone should be charged with a misdemeanor crime. To indict someone means to formally charge the person and proceed toward a public trial. Probable cause means that there’s enough evidence to indict. Ohio grand juries also may conduct special investigations of possible crimes committed in the county where the grand jury is convened, but still with the goal of deciding if someone should be charged.
The purpose of using grand juries in these ways is to provide independent evaluation of potential charges as a system of checks and balances when someone is suspected of a felony. The intent is to try to ensure that innocent people don’t face false accusations, particularly of serious crimes.
Grand juries in Ohio are governed by Chapter 2939 of the Ohio Revised Code. There are numerous statutes that spell out how many people serve on a grand jury, how they’re selected, how members of a grand jury are compensated for their time, what their duties are, how to handle indictments or decisions not to indict, and other detail about how grand juries are meant to work. Some of the highlights include:
- Ohio grand juries are made up of a total of 15 people, with 12 needing to agree to an indictment
- Grand juries are not called for specific cases, but rather for set terms during which they consider any cases assigned to them
- Unlike public jury trials, the proceedings of grand juries in Ohio are secret
- In addition to considering possible indictments, Ohio grand juries also have the task of visiting county jails every three months to examine the conditions and treatment of prisoners, and to report back to the county Court of Common Pleas in writing about what they found
There are some important differences in how grand juries are conducted compared to public jury trials, and in what kinds of evidence grand juries typically hear and consider. Among the differences:
- The person suspected of the crime is not present for grand jury proceedings unless called to testify, but has a right to be present for a public jury trial
- The accused’s lawyer is not in the room for grand jury proceedings but prosecutors are
- No judge is in the room for grand jury proceedings
- Witnesses do not get cross-examined
- Only the prosecutor’s evidence gets presented; no defense evidence is heard
- Hearsay evidence is allowed during witness testimony in front of a grand jury that would not be allowed in a public trial
- Evidence obtained by illegal means, such as a warrantless search or illegal surveillance, can be heard and used by grand jurors, but may be excluded from a public trial
- If the prosecutor knows something that indicates the accused might not have committed the crime, there is no requirement that the information be presented to the grand jury, but the prosecutor would have to share that information with the accused’s lawyer in a public trial
- Grand juries do not decide if someone is guilty and do not have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt; merely that enough evidence of the person’s possible involvement with the crime exists that the person should be charged
If the grand jury decides to indict that the probable cause exists to indict someone, then the case proceeds to open court where the accused person can enter a plea. If the person pleads not guilty, the case proceeds toward a public trial. It is during the public trial phase that defense evidence is presented, and jurors must find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, or are being investigated for a crime, the Columbus criminal defense team at Luftman, Heck & Associates can help. Call us at (614) 500-3836 today for a free consultation.