As a direct result of the Eric Garner matter in Staten Island, New York, and the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, MO, the role that the Grand Jury plays in the criminal justice system has come under scrutiny. In New York State, all felony cases must be presented to the Grand Jury unless waived by the defendant. Grand Juries are empowered to hear evidence presented by prosecutors and to take various actions regarding the evidence and legal charges they are to consider. The Grand Jury can also conduct independent investigations. Grand Juries sit for a term of approximately one month. Each Grand Jury comprises 23 citizens who hear and examine evidence concerning offenses and take action based on such evidence. Special Grand Juries will be convened when there is a lot of evidence to be heard and may take months to be presented on a particular matter. These Grand Jurors will usually be only assigned to hear this matter and meet on certain days of the week until concluded.
What Can a Grand Jury Do?
The Grand Jury can vote on an indictment (a written statement charging an individual with the commission of a felony), direct the filing of a prosecutor’s information (which contains non-felony charges), direct the removal of a case to Family Court, or issue a report. For the first three actions, the Grand Jury must determine that the evidence is legally sufficient and that it provides reasonable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the crime. Otherwise, the Grand Jury dismisses the matter. If the Grand Jury votes an indictment, the case is adjourned to a Supreme Court Part for Arraignment, and then the matter will either proceed to trial or a plea bargain will be meted out.
Are Grand Jury proceedings open to the public?
No. Grand Jury proceedings are secret and only specifically-authorized persons can be present. In addition to the Assistant District Attorney and the Grand Jurors, there is a stenographer and a Grand Jury Warden, who oversees administrative aspects of the proceedings. The ADA is the “legal adviser” of the Grand Jury and examines all witnesses who testify before it, including any defendant or defense witnesses. At least 16 Grand Jurors must be present for any Grand Jury to hear evidence and take action. Furthermore, at least 12 members who have heard the evidence must agree before any affirmative action can be taken.
There is a lot of debate as to whether Grand Juries are impartial proceedings as prosecutors fully control them and many argue they have the ability to sway the Grand Jurors to either vote to indite the matter or not. The judge who is assigned to the matter after an indictment will review the Grand Jury minutes to make sure they are legally sufficient and that the prosecutor acted and presented the case and the charges properly.
Although the criminal justice system in New York State and the United States may not be perfect and is always in need of improvement and tinkering, it is still the best system in the world to ensure justice for all.
If you have any questions regarding the Grand Jury process or the Criminal Justice System in general, do not hesitate to contact the Law Firm of Michael A. Arbeit, P.C. today.