Grand juries play an important role in the criminal process, but they do not determine guilt or innocence. Rather, the grand jury’s role is to decide, with assistance by and guidance from a prosecuting attorney, whether a suspect should be charged with a crime. In St. Louis County, Missouri, a grand jury recently decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Retired Judge Eugene Hyman discusses the case.
Judge Hyman explains that criminal cases can usually proceed one of two ways: The first way is that, following an arrest, a prosecuting attorney can issue a criminal complaint against the suspect. If the crime is a felony, a probable cause, or preliminary, hearing must be afforded the defendant. The prosecution must call witnesses to show probable cause that a crime was committed, and the defense attorney may cross-examine. The standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The other procedure—the only procedure in some jurisdictions—is for a grand jury, selected from the community, to determine if there is probable cause. Under the grand jury procedure, the prosecuting attorney is in charge, presenting as much evidence as the state believes is needed and instructing the grand jury on the law. The grand jury may ask questions of witnesses, but there are no defense attorneys present to cross-examine the witnesses, typically police officers.
Judge Hyman points out that, if a grand jury refuses to indict a defendant—to issue a “true bill”—there is no appeal. That is the end of the process. If a grand jury does indict, however, the defense has some options to challenge the procedure before the case goes to trial. Also, Judge Hyman notes, the fact that a particular grand jury refuses to indict does not preclude the prosecuting attorney from trying again with a new grand jury or from having the suspect arrested and issuing a criminal complaint. Judge Hyman suggests that nothing further will be attempted in the Ferguson case.
In the Darren Wilson case, several things were unusual. First, it is unusual for a grand jury not to indict a suspect. Also, the proceedings in this case went on for months, and that is unusual. Sometimes, Judge Hyman says, grand juries don’t precisely understand their role and look for guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This case was also unusual, Judge Hyman suggests, because all the evidence was later released to the public, something that is not done in a typical case.
Honorable Judge Eugene Hyman has received numerous awards and recognition for his work with families and children and has appeared on numerous television news shows. For more information, visit www.judgehyman.com. He is also a featured commentator on The Family Law Channel and The Legal Broadcast Network. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.