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How the Grand Jury Works

Posted on in Criminal Defense

federal criminal justice system, Wisconsin defense lawyer, Wisonsin criminal defense attorneyRecent events in Ferguson and New York have prompted an increased interest into the workings of the criminal justice system. One particular area of interest is the way in which a grand jury functions. Although grand juries often appear tangentially in news stories, their secretive nature means that most people tend to pay them little attention. At their heart, grand juries are about deciding whether there is enough evidence that a person committed a crime for there to be a full trial on the issue, making their job much different than the trial jury, also known as a petit jury, which much actually decide whether a person is guilty of a crime.

The Purpose of Grand Juries

The purpose of grand juries is to ask a group of people to review the evidence against a possible defendant to determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe that the defendant committed a crime. Importantly, the standard of probable cause is a considerably lower standard than at the actual trial, where the defendant must be shown to be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The use of these grand juries is actually the exception more than the rule, at least in Wisconsin. Here, most criminal cases begin with the district attorney's decision to file a criminal complaint. However, there are cases in which the district attorney may feel that it is better to have a group of people analyze the evidence and determine whether the person appears to have committed the crime, and that is when they can convene a grand jury.

The Procedure of Grand Juries

Wisconsin, as with all states, has both state and federal courts, and the procedure for grand juries varies slightly between them. For instance, a state court grand jury must have at least 17 jurors on it to hear evidence. Conversely, federal grand juries are comprised of at least 23 people. However, in either case, 12 jurors must eventually vote in favor of bringing the matter to trial, which is known as indicting the person, and triggers the criminal case against them.

The members of a grand jury reach this decision by reviewing the evidence against a person. In a federal grand jury, this is done with the aid and counsel of a lawyer from the U.S. attorney's office, who acts as the prosecution. That lawyer advises the grand jury on what witnesses to call and what documents to request, and also presents the evidence of the offense. This means that the prosecution has a great deal of control over what evidence enters the process at the grand jury stage. Once the evidence has been heard, the jury deliberates and decides whether to indict the person.

Criminal procedure can be a complicated landscape, but you do not need to walk through it alone. If you have been charged with a crime, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today to learn more about your rights.

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