Federal Grand Jury
UPDATED: October 10, 2012
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The federal grand jury system was designed to investigate alleged criminal activity, evaluate claims and begin the federal criminal trial process by indicting (bringing a formal accusation against) suspected criminals who have violated federal laws. Grand jurors come from the community at large; usually between 16 and 23 jurors sit on a grand jury. Federal grand jury proceedings are shrouded in mystery as the prosecutor (the U.S. Attorney General in federal grand jury proceedings), jurors and the stenographer are not allowed to disclose what happens in the grand jury room unless compelled to do so in a judicial proceeding. The defendant (the accused) generally does not have the right to testify on his or her own behalf before a grand jury, but will often be allowed to do so by the prosecutor if requested.
In a grand jury proceeding, the U.S. Attorney General presents his or her case to the grand jury, who votes by simple majority whether to indict. If indictment is chosen, a warrant is issued for the defendant’s arrest and criminal proceedings begin. Grand juries can compel the testimony of a witness or the production of documents via subpoena (a written order) and are often used to investigate claims in cases where nobody has yet been arrested. Grand juries are governed by U.S.C. Title 18, Chapter 215.
Federal grand juries generally sit for a term of 18 months with the option of a 6-month extension, though a special grand jury can be extended up to another 18 months. The federal grand jury is selected from a pool of eligible citizens that is determined by tax, voter and driver registration lists. Serving on a grand jury is a serious duty and obligation and is governed by strict rules and procedures.
Though no attorneys are present during grand jury proceedings, it is important for those called upon to testify or acting as defendants before a grand jury to call upon competent legal counsel to protect their rights. Witnesses in grand jury proceedings can be at risk for their own future indictment, so it is a good idea to go into the process well-informed of your rights and responsibilities. While an indictment is not a guilty verdict, it does instigate complex federal legal proceedings that can lead to severe penalties and/or imprisonment.