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What is a Grand Jury? Perry Indictment Puts Process in the Spotlight

As you likely know, Texas Governor Rick Perry was recently indicted on two felony charges of abusing his official powers. The indictment was made by a grand jury after four months of looking at evidence and hearing testimony from members of the governor’s staff.

When we think of being charged with a crime, we typically think of a district attorney or other prosecutor making the decision to bring charges against a criminal defendant. A grand jury, however, is comprised of citizens who are called to make the determination as to whether prosecutors should pursue a criminal case. What a grand jury is, how it works, and what it means if you are being investigated by one remains a mystery to most people.

What is a Grand Jury?

Prosecutors use grand juries to investigate suspicions of criminal activity. If the grand jury determines there is enough probable cause to file criminal charges, it has the power to return an indictment. In this way, individuals can be charged with a crime without being arrested or caught breaking the law.

Federal grand juries have a maximum limit of 23 members, however, the law only requires 16 for a quorum. Additionally, 12 or more federal grand jurors can return an indictment. For the most part, grand juries operate completely independently, although they are closely controlled by the prosecutor and the agents who present the evidence in order to secure an Indictment.

In Texas state court, a grand jury indictment is required before felony charges may be levied unless the defendant waives this right. A district court judge convenes a grand jury of 12 people (9 required for a quorum) from the county in which the court sits to listen to the facts of a case and determine if probable cause exists for charges alleged against a defendant. The grand jury is also an investigative body. It can assist the district attorney’s office in uncovering evidence to support charging a particular defendant with a crime, or it can choose to independently investigate matters brought to its attention. The grand jury can issue a true bill that equals a felony indictment or it can issue a no-bill turning the case down.

Grand jury proceedings are conducted without the usual due process requirements guaranteed by the Constitution. Instead, they are completely secret and use a so-called “ex parte” process, which means all evidence is presented without defense counsel appearing or presenting evidence in favor of the accused. Federal prosecutors use grand juries to investigate allegations to build a future case against the defendant. If you are called to appear before a grand jury, you may not even know you are the target of an investigation. Because the grand jury only hears one side of the case, it is no surprise that they often return unfounded indictments.

Contact an Attorney Immediately If You Are Under Investigation

Prosecutors often use grand jury proceedings to compel both people and corporations to turn over documents or testify against the accused. Suspects can be summoned to offer testimony or surrender documents, but they have no right to testify or be present before the grand jury. If you get caught up in one of these secret proceedings, you could incriminate yourself without even knowing it.

If you discover that you are under investigation by a grand jury or have received a grand jury letter, it is imperative that you contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately. Not only can a lawyer advise you how to proceed and how to protect yourself, they may also be able to negotiate with prosecutors as to whether you may be allowed to appear and may even be able to dissuade them from proceeding.

This article has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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