What is a Grand Jury?

Later today (or perhaps as this is being typed), a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri is expected to release its decision as to whether or not criminal charges will be filed against police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.  In the last few months since the incident, several friends and clients have asked us to explain the grand jury process.

So, what is a grand jury?

In Maryland, a grand jury is a group of up to 23 people who conduct investigations and/or receive evidence to determine whether probable cause exists to charge someone with a crime.  Many are surprised to learn that a grand jury does not hear both sides of the case and as such, does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.   Rather, the grand jury only determines whether probable cause exists that the accused committed the crime.

Typically, the State’s Attorney (or an Assistant State’s Attorney in larger jurisdictions) will call witnesses and present testimony to the grand jury for review.  Unlike a criminal trial, there is no cross examination of the witnesses and hearsay statements are admissible.   Additionally, the state’s attorney may invite the grand jurors to ask questions of the witnesses.  After the witnesses have testified, the grand jury will determine if probable cause exists for the accused to be charged with the crime.

Interestingly, an accused has the right to testify in a grand jury proceeding in Maryland.  However, it is a double edged sword and rarely conducted because the lawyer for the accused in not permitted to be present during the testimony and the prosecutor is allowed to ask questions of the accused during the testimony.

The grand jury process is often criticized due to the perception of bias in favor of the prosecution leading to Judge Sol Wachtler’s famous line that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.  However, there are occasions where grand juries decline to authorize the issuance of criminal charges.  Most recently, a grand jury deemed that there was no probable cause to indict Tony Stewart of criminal charges in the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward, Jr.

Contact a Defense Attorney

Grand jury indictments and/or subpoenas are serious matters.  Firm attorney Duncan Scott Keir is experienced at handling criminal matters and can help you navigate the treacherous waters of a grand jury investigation.  To schedule a consultation, please contact Duncan at dkeir@fixedcostlaw.com or 410-528-7205.