Posted on 4/3/17

Texas criminal procedure provides for the convening of a grand jury for certain criminal cases. The media reports about various grand jury findings. Ordinary citizens are often called to jury duty, which includes sitting on a grand jury. What is so “grand” about a grand jury?

Origins of a Grand Jury

The grand jury system is rooted in English Common Law dating back centuries. In 1166, King Henry II started a series of sweeping reforms to the English law system known as the Assize of Clarendon. The Assize of Clarendon initially sought to transform a trial for an alleged felon. To determine the guilt of an accused felon prior to the Assize of Clarendon, the accused would go through a trial by ordeal or a trial by battle. Also removed was the law of oaths, also known as compurgation, wherein the sworn statement of a trusted witness by itself is sufficient to prove innocence. In place of these crude trials, Henry II introduced a system that determines evidentiary facts and displays them to a court. One method to determine innocence was through a grand jury.

Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…” In other words, there is a constitutional requirement to convene a grand jury as part of a criminal trial.

The purpose of a grand jury is, as a preliminary measure, to determine whether sufficient evidence or that probable cause exists to indict the accused for an alleged crime. Moreover, this determination should be made by the defendant’s peers.

Operation of a Grand Jury

A grand jury is called such because it typically contains more jurors than a petite jury, which is a jury that sits at a trial. Hence, this jury is more grand.

In Texas, a grand jury generally consists of 12 jurors who are drawn from a larger pool of a jurors. Once selected, the prosecutor brings the grand jury into a room to listen to the prosecutor. The prosecutor runs the show; there is no judge present. The prosecutor has the power to call-in witnesses and even the defendant. The defendant is not allowed to bring a lawyer into the room with the grand jury. Since it is not a trial, there are no Fifth Amendment rights to silence and having effective assistance of counsel. Once the prosecutor calls in witnesses and hears testimony, the grand jury votes. The grand jury’s choice is whether to indict the defendant according to the charge. In Texas, there is a nine-juror requirement to indict the defendant. After the vote, the prosecutor will get either a bill, which means to indict, or a no bill, which means not to indict.   

For a defendant, the grand jury experience can be terrifying. Many people have cracked under the pressure of a grand jury.

If you have been accused of a crime, seek the guidance of a lawyer with a proven track record. Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel.


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