WHAT IS A GRAND JURY?
Before we answer this question, let's discuss some important basics of criminal law. There are two ways that someone can be charged with a crime. The first is an accusation and the second is an indictment. An accusation is when a prosecutor themselves charges someone with a crime. An indictment is when a grand jury charges someone with a crime. Now, let's dig into the difference between the two.
Accusation v. Indictment
When someone is charged by accusation a prosecutor, by themselves, decided that there is probable cause that that person committed a crime. The prosecutor's office drafted an accusation and by signing the accusation the prosecutor has sworn there is probable cause that that person has committed a crime.
Accusations are only available to prosecutors for misdemeanor charges and for “less serious” felonies. Those felonies include:
- Theft charges
- Forgery and fraud charges
- Escape and other confinement related charges
- Possession of a firearm by a convicted felon or first offender probationer
Accusations may be filed after someone has been arrested for allegedly committing one of these crimes. In rare circumstances, however, prosecutors can charge individuals via accusation even though that person has never even been arrested. In these circumstances a prosecutor must file an affidavit along with the accusation swearing to the facts supporting their accusation. Meaning that, YES (even though it is rare), you may be charged with a felony upon the decision of a sole prosecutor without ever being arrested. Now, for the main question: What is a grand jury?
Other than an accusation, the only way someone can be charged with a crime is via an indictment. An indictment is a charging document where a grand jury charges someone with a crime. Any charge can be brought by indictment, but serious felonies must be brought via indictment.
You have noticed that when someone is charged by an accusation the prosecutor is swearing that there is probable cause. But, when someone is charged via indictment, then it is a Grand Jury charging the defendant. When a grand jury charges someone it is done through a very secretive process – grand jury proceedings. So, first things first. Who is on this grand jury?
A grand jury is generally composed of 23 people from the county where the charges are being brought. The jurors are selected randomly from a list created by the county clerk. There are, however, a few things that disqualify someone from serving as a grand juror. Those include:
- Someone who is a convicted felon and has not had their rights restored.
- A person determined to be mentally incompetent by a court.
- Someone actively being a defendant in a criminal case where that person is participating in pretrial release/diversion etc. without having completed that program.
- Someone who pleaded guilty under a conditional discharge and has not yet completed the terms of the sentence.
- Someone serving a sentence as a first offender.
- A person participating in drug court, mental health court, or something similar after having been charged with a felony.
Once selected, a grand juror typically serves for a full term of court. Terms of court vary across the State of Georgia county to county. Here, locally, the terms of court begin on the following days:
Carroll County – Second Monday in January, First Monday in April, Third Monday in June, and First Monday in October.
Coweta County – First Monday in March and first Tuesday in September
Heard County – Third Monday in March and September
Meriwether County – Third Monday in February, May, August, and November.
Troup County – First Monday in February, May, August, and November.
That means that here locally, grand jurors typically serve for about three months, unless they are in Coweta or Heard County. If grand jurors are reporting to Newnan, in Coweta County, or Franklin, in Heard County, they can expect to serve for six months.
Once the 23 citizens are selected, there are regularly scheduled grand jury meetings. This is where the grand jury begins to charge people with crimes. Many people do not realize that grand jury proceedings operate in secrecy with no public oversight. Only the grand jurors, the District Attorney and his or her assistants, the prosecutor's witnesses (of course only witnesses the District Attorney wants to be present are allowed), a stenographer, and interpreter. Notably missing from this list is the person accused of a crime and his attorney. So, how does the grand jury charge someone?
Once the grand jurors convene and a session begins, a prosecutor will secretly meet with the Grand Jury in a room closed to the public (sometimes the grand jury even meets in the District Attorney's Office!). Prosecutors call witnesses to testify in front of the grand jury. Typically, prosecutors call only the lead investigator on the case as a witness. And, again, the defendant and his lawyer are not given opportunity to cross-examine that witness.
After testimony concludes, the prosecutor and witnesses leave and grand jurors deliberate. Following deliberation, the grand jurors vote on whether or not they believe there is probable cause to charge the defendant with a crime. This is a very quick process and the grand jury oftentimes considers multiple serious felony cases at once with mere minutes passing between the presentation of additional cases to the Grand Jury. In fact, earlier this year, defense attorneys in a neighboring state challenged a grand jury's proceedings after it was discovered that prosecutors and the grand jury spent, on average, only 39 seconds considering whether or not to charge someone with a felony. Obviously, this is not very much time to spend on something that can impact someone's life so significantly.
After deliberations, the grand jury votes on whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crimes presented by the district attorney. If they vote yes, then the indictment is “true billed” and the defendant is now officially charged with a crime. If the indictment is “no billed” then there are no charges against the defendant because the grand jury decided there is not probable cause to charge him or her. A “no bill”, however, does not prevent prosecutors from trying again and presenting the case to a grand jury at a later date. Oftentimes, the District Attorney will wait until a different grand jury is empaneled and try their luck with a different set of jurors since they didn't like the result from the first grand jury.
There is more bad news for people under investigation. A grand jury vote does not have to be unanimous for an indictment to be true billed. Only 12 of the grand jurors have to vote in support of an indictment for it to be true billed and for charges to be brought.
Long story short: the grand jury is a group of citizens that the District Attorney meets with in secret (no defense attorney or defendant is allowed) and if the DA convinces 12 of those people that there is probable cause that someone may have committed a crime, then the grand jury votes to true bill an indictment and there is officially a criminal case (usually a felony charge) against that person.
J. Ryan Brown