News Archives

A Primer on the Grand Jury Process

November 24, 2014

During assembly on Monday, November 24, and in anticipation of the grand jury decision/announcement on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the Michael Brown shooting, Andy Abbott reminded students to support and listen to one another. He also asked Mark Smith, chair of the History Department to explain the grand jury process. Dr. Smith's comments follows:

"Grand juries began in England in the 12th century as a way to protect the people from over-zealous prosecution by the Crown. Americans continued the mechanism in the colonies and then included grand juries in the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that all people charged with a 'capital' or other 'infamous crime' shall be indicted by a grand jury. A grand jury does not decide the guilt or innocence of a person, just whether or not there is enough evidence for a prosecutor to charge the person with a crime and to proceed to trial. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in St. Louis County, about half of all serious cases are sent to a grand jury.

"Each state has slightly different rules for grand juries, but in Missouri, a grand jury consists of 12 people, chosen by a judge from the regular jury pool of ordinary citizens. Their names are secret, they are not sequestered, and they are paid $18/day for their service.

"Once empaneled, they meet for a set term, and in St. Louis, they meet on Wednesdays or any other day that the 12 people agree that they can meet. This grand jury was set to expire in early September, but a judge extended its term until January.

"The prosecutor generally must tell the grand jury which charge to consider (in this case, 1st or 2nd degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter seem most appropriate) but in this case, the prosecutor has not told the grand jury what charges to consider.

"The St. Louis County prosecutor presents evidence to the grand jurors. This is not an adversarial proceeding; there is no defense given, the defendant does not need to testify (although the police officer in this case reportedly did). Also, in this case, the prosecutor has said he is presenting all the evidence his office has, not just the evidence that would most likely get him an indictment, as most prosecutors do. The grand jury can ask for a specific witness, question that witness, or ask to hear from a witness again, but in general, the prosecutor calls the witnesses and controls the process. The prosecutor leaves the room when the grand jurors begin their deliberations.

"In general, these proceedings are secret, and only the final result is known. In this case, however, the St. Louis County prosecutor has recorded and transcribed the proceedings and has said he will seek to release the information in the event that there is no indictment. He will need a court order to do this, and there have been conflicting reports as to whether or not this order has already occurred.

"The grand jury has two options when it deliberates. First, it can return a bill of indictment, meaning that it believes that there is enough evidence to hold a trial. In Missouri, nine of the 12 grand jurors must agree to indict. In the event of an indictment, the accused is charged, arrested and given the opportunity to enter a plea. 

"If the grand jury does not indict (it returns what is called a “no true bill”), then a number of things could happen. The prosecutor could, at a later date, ask another grand jury to consider the case if, for instance, additional evidence emerges. Because this grand jury is a state matter, a federal grand jury could consider whether a federal law was broken. The Brown family might also consider a civil action against Officer Wilson or the Ferguson Police Department.

"In short, what I would like you to remember is that the grand jury hearing is just one step in the legal process, and after we hear from them, this case is not over."