The Basics of Grand Juries and How They've Recently Sparked Two National Controversies

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Oct 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

A grand jury has indicted a New Jersey police officer and his wife over the death of their 3-month-old daughter. The indictment process actually sheds light on two national issues: the impeachment proceedings against the president and criminal charges against police officers who shoot unarmed black suspects.

Suspended Cop Indicted for Murdering 3-Month-Old Daughter

New Jersey police arrested a suspended state cop on first-degree murder charges and his wife on manslaughter charges, for their alleged role in the death of their 3-month-old daughter. She had been found nonresponsive on December 5, 2018, at their home and later died at the hospital. An autopsy had revealed that she had several broken ribs and a fractured skull.

The arrest is an aftereffect of an indictment issued by a New Jersey grand jury. State prosecutors had presented evidence to the grand jury to show that they had probable cause to believe that the suspended policeman and his wife were responsible for the crime. The grand jury agreed and issued the indictment, which led to the arrest and formal charges.

Grand Juries: A Preliminary Step in Major Criminal Offenses

The federal criminal justice system and some states require a grand jury to issue an indictment before prosecutors can pursue certain criminal offenses. Prosecutors can get that indictment by proving probable cause to a group of citizens – similar to a jury in a regular trial.

However, there are two important differences between a grand jury and the jury in a criminal trial:

  1. The trial jury can only issue a conviction if they are persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, while the grand jury can only issue an indictment if they are persuaded that there is probable cause
  2. Grand juries are ex parte hearings – there is no defense lawyer and no defendant to argue that there is not probable cause

Together, these two differences have led to the infamous quote from Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge in New York: prosecutors could get grand juries “to indict a ham sandwich, if that's what they wanted.”

Non-Indictments of Police Officers Accused of Shooting Unarmed Suspects

That's why it is so disturbing when grand juries refuse to indict police officers who have been accused of shooting unarmed black suspects. It means prosecutors probably didn't try that hard. In fact, prosecutors in the original shooting that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement – the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri – actually presented exculpatory evidence to the grand jury in the indictment phase, essentially telling grand jury members why they shouldn't indict the cop.

Lots of Misinformation About Impeachment

The grand jury process is also at the heart of lots of misinformation about the presidential impeachment process. Advocates for President Trump have claimed that Trump's due process rights are being violated by the House of Representatives' impeachment investigation, that he should be able to call witnesses in his defense, and that the whole process is a “Kangaroo Court.”

But the House of Representatives serves as the grand jury in the impeachment process, issuing an indictment if they decide there is probable cause of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is the Senate that holds the trial where the president can mount a defense.

Criminal Defense in Philadelphia

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About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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