Demystifying the Grand Jury: Understanding its Role in the Justice System

December 18, 2023

In the labyrinth of the legal system, the grand jury plays a pivotal yet often misunderstood role. Different from a trial jury, a grand jury serves as a critical component in the prosecutorial process, especially in the United States. This article aims to shed light on the function, process, and significance of the grand jury in the judicial system.

What is a Grand Jury?

A grand jury is a legal body empowered to conduct official proceedings to investigate potential criminal conduct and determine whether criminal charges should be brought. Comprising citizens drawn from the community, a grand jury operates independently, often in a secretive manner, to evaluate evidence presented by prosecutors.

Key Functions of a Grand Jury

  1. Determining Probable Cause: The primary function of a grand jury is to decide if there is enough evidence or probable cause to indict a person or entity, meaning to formally charge them with a crime.

  2. Investigative Role: Grand juries have broad powers to investigate criminal activity within their jurisdiction. They can subpoena documents, compel witnesses to testify, and explore intricate legal matters that regular trial juries do not.

  3. Protecting Citizens’ Rights: By determining probable cause, grand juries act as a buffer between the government and the accused, ensuring that individuals are not arbitrarily or unjustly charged.

The Grand Jury Process

  • Selection and Size: Like trial juries, grand jurors are selected randomly from the population. A grand jury is typically larger, often consisting of 16 to 23 members, compared to a trial jury.

  • Secret Proceedings: Grand jury proceedings are usually confidential. This secrecy protects the reputation of potential defendants, encourages witnesses to speak freely, and minimizes the risk of tampering with the investigation.

  • Prosecutors’ Role: Prosecutors present evidence and witness testimony to the grand jury, guiding the jurors in understanding the law and the case at hand. However, the decision to indict rests solely with the grand jurors.

  • Voting to Indict: For an indictment to be issued, a majority of jurors must vote in favor. This process is known as “returning an indictment.”

Differences from a Trial Jury

Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence. Its role is limited to assessing whether there is sufficient evidence to bring someone to trial. Moreover, grand jury proceedings are not adversarial; the accused and their legal representatives are typically not present during the deliberations.

Criticisms and Controversies

The grand jury system has faced criticism and controversy:

  • Lack of Transparency: The secretive nature of grand jury proceedings can lead to concerns about accountability and fairness.
  • Prosecutorial Influence: Critics argue that grand juries are heavily influenced by prosecutors and may lack impartiality in their decision-making.


The grand jury is a cornerstone of the American criminal justice system, playing a unique and crucial role in the prosecutorial process. While it provides an essential check against unfounded criminal charges, it also operates under a veil of secrecy that occasionally draws criticism. Understanding the function and proceedings of the grand jury is key to grasping the broader dynamics of the legal system and the intricate balance of justice and fairness it seeks to maintain.

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