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What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a group of citizens who hear evidence that you may have committed a crime. The grand jury hears this evidence during the process of a grand jury investigation, which can take place over a period of time. The grand jury investigation process is a formal way of coming to a decision to file criminal charges against you.

When the grand jury has deliberated and come to a decision about whether it is likely you have committed a crime, they will return an indictment on you. The grand jury investigation is conducted in complete confidence and involves only the prosecutor, the witnesses and the grand jury members. Sometimes, attorneys for the witnesses may be present, but the accused and their attorney are not present. As the accused, you may not even know that there is a grand jury investigation against you taking place.

Grand jury indictments are a right under the Fifth Amendment. Under the Fifth Amendment, if you are accused of “capital,” “infamous” or more serious crimes, you have the right to be indicted. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, you may not be able to waive your right to indictment.

For less serious charges, the prosecutor can simply file a criminal complaint and then a probable cause hearing is scheduled. The indictment reflects the seriousness of the criminal charge and is designed to be a more thorough way of evaluating whether there is enough evidence that a person may have committed a crime. In most cases, grand juries vote to indict the accused.

What Does the Grand Jury Do?

The grand jury is very active during the grand jury investigation. The prosecutor will explain the law to them and the grand jury can call witnesses and request evidence. Members of the grand jury can even question witnesses during the grand jury investigation. The grand jury members are not, however, working to determine your guilt. They are instructed to investigate whether there is “probable cause” that you committed a crime, which is enough evidence to bring charges against you so you can stand trial. Probable cause is a lower evidentiary standard than guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard for convicting at a criminal jury trial.

When the grand jury has made their decision to return an indictment against the accused, the foreperson issues a formal paper known as a “true bill.” If the grand jury have voted against returning an indictment, a “no bill” is issued. It is rare for a grand jury to return a “no bill.”

What is the Difference Between a Grand Jury and a Trial Jury?

A grand jury is called a “grand” jury because it is a larger group of people compared to a trial jury. The grand jury is typically made up of 23 people, while a trial jury is usually made up of 6-12 people. A trial jury is often called a “petit” jury.

The grand jury has much more freedom to request evidence during the grand jury investigation. Unlike at a trial, there is no judge directing the proceedings and making decisions on what evidence to admit.

During the grand jury investigation, the grand jury can hear and request a wide range of evidence. The type of evidence the grand jury can hear doesn’t have to conform to the same standard as a criminal trial. The grand jury can hear evidence that is hearsay, for example.

The grand jury is a non-adversarial proceeding, where neither you nor your attorney are present. Unlike at a trial, you don’t get a chance to present evidence for your innocence.

The grand jury proceedings take place in complete confidentiality. The evidence heard in grand jury proceedings can’t be used in a criminal trial. However, the witnesses’ transcripts and minutes are available for the discovery process before a criminal trial. If a witness has changed their story for example, the grand jury transcripts can confirm this.

During a grand jury investigation, only 12 of the 23 grand jurors have to agree to issue an indictment. During a criminal jury trial in a Massachusetts Superior Court or in Federal Court, all 12 of the jurors must come to a unanimous decision. The foreperson of the grand jury plays an important leading role in directing the activities of the grand jury.

A grand jury investigation is very different from a criminal jury trial. If you have been indicted by a grand jury, it is extremely serious, but it does not mean you cannot stand trial or otherwise fight for your rights. A grand jury indictment is not a conviction of guilt. In certain situations, you may even be able to challenge the grand jury indictment.

If you have been indicted by a grand jury or if you are being investigated for a crime, you should contact an experienced criminal law attorney immediately. At Dhar Law, LLP, we have defended the most serious criminal cases in the Massachusetts Superior Court and Federal Court. An indictment is not the end of the story. We will fight to defend your rights, including your right to a fair trial if necessary. Please contact us at (617)-880-6155 immediately to obtain trusted and highly skilled representation.


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Heading up the firm, Vikas Dhar is widely recognized as a leader in the New England legal community. An accomplished business litigator and a “Top 40 Under 40” criminal defense attorney, he has also been honored as a New England Super Lawyer/Rising Star in the area of White-Collar Criminal Defense for each of the past six years by Boston Magazine.

I have the power and the skill to be able to save people from themselves. I can be your guide during the darkness. I can hold your hand and navigate you out of the darkness into the light.

— Vikas Dhar
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