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Understanding how a grand jury differs from a trial jury

There have been two high-profile cases in the news recently in which a grand jury played a prominent role. Both cases involved a white police officer who killed an unarmed black suspect during an altercation. The first of these cases was the fatal shooting of a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. The second was an incident in New York City in which an officer put a suspect in a chokehold that ultimately proved fatal.

Racial tensions between police and communities of color are a significant problem here in Chicago as well. As such, many readers may be following both stories. In today’s post, we’ll discuss how grand juries work and how they differ from trial juries.

Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not decide guilt or innocence. In fact, no criminal charges will have even been filed when a grand jury convenes. A grand jury’s purpose is to weigh relevant evidence (but not necessarily all evidence) in order to help a prosecutor decide if a suspect should face criminal charges.

When most of us think of a trial jury, we imagine six to 12 people in a courtroom with prosecutors, defendants, judges and members of the public. This is not the case with a grand jury. Typically, grand jury proceedings are relaxed and the only legal professional present is the prosecutor.

Finally, grand jury proceedings are kept strictly confidential. This is to ensure that a potential defendant’s reputation is not jeopardized if the jury decides not to indict. It also helps any witnesses speak more freely than they otherwise might.

It is important to reiterate that grand jurors cannot convict a potential defendant. Their sole purpose is to help decide whether or not there is enough evidence or probable cause for prosecutors to bring criminal charges.

Prosecutors do not have to use grand juries. Oftentimes, they do so because a case is high-profile and/or controversial. In each of the two cases mentioned above, grand juries chose not to indict the police officer involved. Because both of these cases have come to represent a larger issue of alleged racial bias within the criminal justice system, many Americans are understandably upset.

However, whether you agree or disagree with the two outcomes, these two cases may be a good example of why we need grand juries. Public opinion can easily overshadow the facts of a given case. Grand juries seek to ensure that each case is weighed only on its own merits.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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