Grand Juries 101

UNITED STATES

Two grand juries in recent weeks—one in New York and one in Missouri—declined to indict two police officers in the deaths of two men, raising questions and public outcry about why grand juries rarely charge police officers with crimes. (Christian Science Monitor)

Use our resources to better understand the jury system.

Teachers, scroll down for a short list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

 

  • What are some ways that a grand jury is different than a trial jury?
    • Grand juries do not decide “guilty” or “not guilty,” just if there should be a trial at all.
    • Grand juries typically do not hear from the defense or a judge. The prosecution is the only one that presents evidence.
    • Grand juries typically hear from far fewer witnesses than trial juries. (There was an exception to this in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, when the grand juries were made aware of “nearly all the evidence,” according to the CSM.)

 

 

  • If a state does not use a grand jury, how do they determine if a case is strong enough to go to trial?
    • According to FindLaw, many courts use preliminary hearings instead of grand juries. Unlike grand juries, preliminary hearings are open to the public (transparent), involve both prosecuting and defense attorneys, and are decided by a judge. They’re a “trial trial run.” Like grand juries, the judge in a preliminary hearing will not decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty, but whether the government has produced enough evidence to proceed in a trial.

 

 

  • If grand juries indict so often, why do they so rarely indict police officers?
    • Police officers have what is sometimes called “qualified immunity,” which protects public officials from being held liable when they are “reasonably” performing their duties. A police officer is allowed to use deadly force in many more circumstances than a regular citizen, something the grand jury is instructed on.
    • Grand juries are largely run by prosecutors, and, according to the CSM, “prosecutors and police officers mostly work hand in hand in the nation’s criminal-justice system.” Critics suggest that this close working relationship makes it difficult for prosecutors to have an incentive to aggressively pursue indictments against police.

 

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Christian Science Monitor: Eric Garner case 101: Why grand juries rarely indict police officers

Nat Geo: What is a jury?

National Center for State Courts: State Court Web sites

FindLaw: How Does a Grand Jury Work?

The Economist: How a grand jury works

Superior Court of California, Placer County: The Placer County Grand Jury (This is a great general introduction to what a specific grand jury does.)

FindLaw: Preliminary Hearing

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