Are Grand Jury Proceedings Open to the Public?
How Privacy Works in a Grand Jury Proceeding
The purpose of a grand jury proceeding is to put evidence of a suspected crime to a group of peers who evaluates whether there is enough evidence to indict, or bring charges against, an individual. During a grand jury proceeding, a prosecutor works with the grand jury to determine whether to bring criminal charges or an indictment against a defendant. Before a grand jury would be brought into the picture, a preliminary hearing would usually occur.
In the U.S., the public has come to appreciate public access to criminal trials as a fundamental principle of our justice system. The Supreme Court stated in 1980, “[Supreme Court precedent] recognized that open trials are bulwarks of our free and democratic government: public access to court proceedings is one of the numerous “checks and balances” of our system, because “contemporaneous review in the forum of public opinion is an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power.”
This is not the case for a grand jury. Some of the differences between a grand jury proceeding and a preliminary hearing involve the privacy of the case and the grand jury itself. A federal grand jury has 16 to 23 members who are drawn from the same pool as regular juries. However, they are involved for a much longer period of time. A typical session of jury duty for a preliminary hearing can last between one day to several months. When it comes to a grand jury duty, all members are sworn in and given a description of their duties and responsibilities by the Presiding Judge. Grand Jurors can expect to serve a term of one year. If you are selected for a Grand Jury service, this means you can expect to make a time commitment of around 25 hours per week for a calendar year.
While a preliminary hearing is typically open to the public and involves lawyers on both sides as well as a judge, a grand jury proceeding is held in private. Every grand juror must take an oath with a vow of secrecy. Jurors are not able to research cases ahead of time, as their opinions must be unbiased. The vow of secrecy makes witnesses feel safer and works to persuade them to testify. The vow of secrecy could also serve to prevent a suspect from fleeing or protect the reputation of an unindicted individual.
A grand jury proceeding is not held in a courtroom or with a judge. The only reason that a member of the public could attend would be if they were called in as a witness. It is very rare for an accused individual to appear before a grand jury or be able to present evidence. Another way in which a grand jury is different than a trial jury is the fact that the foreperson and members of the grand jury are able to ask questions of the witnesses. The prosecutor presents each witness and makes sure the grand jury is familiar with the relevant matters of the law. After that point, everyone except the nine grand jurors is required to leave the room.
The Clark Law Firm has over 35 years of combined experienced defending criminal cases, including grand jury proceedings. To learn more about how we aggressively advocate for our clients, give us a call at (817) 435-4970 or contact us online.