I don’t know about you, but with all the publicity concerning the anticipated outcome of the Ferguson, MO, grand jury hearings, I realized that I don’t know much about what a grand jury is, or what it does. So I looked it up. First of all, I found that grand juries are not always regarded with universal high esteem, as New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler was famously quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities with his opinion that “a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted.”
But it does serve two generally accepted purposes:
It encourages witnesses to speak freely and without fear of retaliation.
It protects the potential defendant’s reputation in case the jury decides not to indict.
But this is what else I learned:
1. Generally, we are guaranteed a right to jury trial (either traditional or grand) for criminal offenses that carry a penalty of more than six months of imprisonment. Only about half the states use grand juries. The others use “preliminary hearings.” Sometimes both.
2. The defendant’s lawyer may request a grand jury trial if he feels he has a better chance of getting the charge thrown out by grand jury rather than going directly to the usual 12 person criminal trial jury. The grand jury decision only requires a 2/3 or 3/4 majority opinion, rather than the unanimous decision often required in criminal trials. Grand juries consist of 16 to 23 persons, rather than the usual 6-12 for criminal trials. The purpose of the grand jury is to determine if the evidence of the crime being presented by the prosecutor is sufficient to bring formal charges. That’s all. It’s an advisory panel.
3. Members of a grand jury serve four month terms, meeting, generally, once a week. They may hear many cases during their term. The Ferguson grand jury had already heard several cases before the current charges against Officer Wilson were brought to them.
4. Grand jury proceedings are much more relaxed than normal court room proceedings. There is no judge present and, frequently, there are no lawyers except for the prosecutor. The defendant’s lawyer is not permitted to be present, since the purpose is to determine if the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to bring charges, not to determine the guilt or innocence of the person suspected of the crime. The prosecutor will explain the law to the jury and work with them to gather evidence and hear testimony. If the grand jury determines there is sufficient evidence for the case to proceed, they hand down an “indictment” against the defendant. If not, they don’t. Even if the grand jury chooses not to indict, the prosecutor may still bring charges and request the usual criminal trial, which he probably will in the Ferguson case — just to save his own hide.
5. Although grand jury members are sworn to secrecy, they are not sequestered. In addition, many others are permitted to be present at the hearings, such as court reporters, interpreters, one or more government attorneys, witnesses, and any other “government personnel—including those of a state, state subdivision, Indian tribe, or foreign government,” plus any other person(s) whom the court may designate. So the chance of their verdict remaining secret for very long is rather slight, which is why it is recommended that their decision be released ASAP—presumably after giving the jury members time enough to get out of town.
I am not a lawyer; so now a couple of strictly non-professional opinions:
1. Since the grand jurors are not sequestered, they have been watching the news of the planned riots in 86 different cities throughout the US by the New Black Panthers and others. The pre-determined positions of none other than the President of the United States, plus his Attorney General, plus his chief “Faith Coordinator,” the Reverend Sharpton, and all of the other out-of-town thugs who await their decision. Then there is the matter of the $5,000 reward placed on the head of Officer Wilson, who, along with his family, is now in hiding. It is difficult to believe the members of the jury will not be somewhat influenced by these current events.
2. Although the identity of grand jury members is supposed to be confidential, with all the media surrounding the Ferguson, MO, courthouse, it can’t have been too difficult to determine who is routinely coming and going into the jury room. So you know that by now the identity of every one of them is known, plus their home addresses, family members, etc., etc.
3. How would you like to be in their positions? If they choose to indict, they are off the hook. If not, their lives aren’t worth a plugged nickel. What would you do?
4. Thus it begins.
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