The filing of charges against several members of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity earlier this month again highlighted the role that grand juries often play in the criminal justice system.
Shrouded in secrecy, most people do not understand what a grand jury does or how proceedings work until they are involved in one. Many also do not understand how prosecutors use the proceedings to their advantage.
The grand jury process
Whereas in most states prosecutors use grand juries to issue indictments, in Pennsylvania, grand juries are known as investigative, and they can only issue findings. Just like in open court, prosecutors can issue subpoenas to call witnesses and compel their testimony, except this time it is in private proceedings. Prosecutors can also present evidence to the jury members.
At the end of the proceedings, which can take several months or even years, the jury will vote on whether it believes there is enough evidence to hold a trial. The jury itself does not issue indictments, rather, it votes on a report called a “presentment,” which remains under seal until prosecutors decide whether to file charges.
A rigged game?
Many criminal defense attorneys and advocates for criminal justice reform argue that grand juries are essentially one-sided affairs in favor of law enforcement. Many prosecutors will use a grand jury’s findings to argue that they have an “open and shut” case.
That is because defense attorneys cannot present evidence or call their own witnesses to rebut prosecutors’ charges. While witnesses can have an attorney present during their testimony, the attorney cannot address the jury or object to any questions.
What can you do?
If you are the target of a grand jury investigation, it will be difficult to know what is going on. One thing you can do, though, is get to work building a defense. As soon as you learn you are the target of grand jury proceedings, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.
Your attorney will get to work investigating your case, collecting different evidence and speaking to witnesses that could aid your case. Your attorney can take this evidence to prosecutors, which may lead to the grand jury being disbanded or you being charged with a lesser offense.