In the American justice system, there are two juries—the grand jury and the petit jury. The petit jury is the jury that most Americans closely associate with a trial, where a jury decides if a defendant is innocent or guilty in a criminal trial or assigns liability and damages in a civil trial. Alternatively, the grand jury is “a pre-trial jury that decides if prosecution evidence is sufficiently strong to bring an accused to trial for the specified crime.” http://thelawdictionary.org/grand-jury/.
Traditionally, grand juries have been criticized for readily handing out indictments. One famous judge even commented that a good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. http://columbialawreview.org/ham-sandwich-nation_reynolds/#t15. However, the grand jury is incredibly important in the United States justice system, and is one of the only references to a jury in the United States Constitution. http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fifth_amendment. The grand jury was originally used in the American Colonies to protect people from being prosecuted with baseless accusations by government authorities, and its use in the United States has continued throughout today. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Grand+jury. Unlike petit juries, which only hear evidence for and judge one case, grand juries hear and judge many cases. http://www.fjc.gov/federal/courts.nsf/autoframe!openform&nav=menu1&page=/federal/courts.nsf/page/307.
In Texas, the grand jury is composed of between fifteen and forty people. https://www.tdcaa.com/journal/lone-star-grand-jury-selection-and-independence. There are two ways of forming a grand jury in Texas. The first is the “key-man” system, where three to five “jury commissioners” are selected and then each selects a certain number of grand jurors that he knows. The second way is the “random” method, in which random jurors are selected from a county list, similar to a petit jury. https://www.tdcaa.com/journal/lone-star-grand-jury-selection-and-independence. The qualifications for serving on the grand jury are simple, and are usually similar to serving on a petit jury. https://www.tdcaa.com/journal/lone-star-grand-jury-selection-and-independence.
A grand jury proceeding is run by the prosecutor, with no judge or opposing counsel present in the proceeding. http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa476.pdf. The prosecutor questions witnesses, who can present evidence to the assembled grand jury. http://www.americanbar.org/publications/litigation_journal/2010_11/summer/preparing_grand_jury_witness.html. The only people present in the grand jury room are the prosecutors, a court reporter, witnesses, and the grand jurors themselves. http://www.americanbar.org/publications/litigation_journal/2010_11/summer/preparing_grand_jury_witness.html. One must be careful, at least for federal trials, when serving as a witness for a grand jury—a witness can be charged with a “false declaration before a grand jury.” http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1623. Unlike a normal trial, in which the rules of evidence apply, hearsay evidence and almost any other kind of evidence is allowed before a grand jury. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Grand+jury. There are two possible results that a grand jury can give. If the grand jury thinks that the prosecutor’s evidence shows probable cause for an indictment, it issues a “true bill” and the defendant is officially charged. If the grand jury does not think that the prosecutor’s evidence shows probable cause for an indictment, it issues a “no bill” and the defendant is not charged. http://campus.udayton.edu/~grandjur/faq/faq3.htm.
Grand juries are not commonly discussed in the media, but can attract media attention when a famous or controversial person is indicted. For example, recently the media has been reporting on the grand jury proceedings of Officer Darren Wilson, the officer involved in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting. http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/if-officer-wilson-not-indicted-mcculloch-plans-release-grand-jury-transcripts-recordings. Additionally, in 2010, several celebrities such as Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton testified before a grand jury about jewelry that was stolen from them. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/07/do-not-publish-until-winton-gives-okay-that-indictment-unsealeda-half-dozen-of-some-the-most-well-known-young-celebrities-in.html.
The grand jury is an important but little-discussed part of the criminal justice system today.