The words “grand jury” have a somewhat ominous ring, and with good cause. Grand jury proceedings are held in secret to determine whether an individual should be indicted for a crime or the case against him should be dismissed. Jurors question witnesses to decide if probable cause exists to believe the accused committed the crime charged. If so, the jury panel issues a decision known as a “true bill.” If the state doesn't have sufficient evidence to establish probable cause in the case, the jurors issue a “no bill.”
Texas grand jurors are the same people selected to serve on regular juries when a case goes to trial -- average citizens chosen at random from voter registration lists. Alternatively, the court can appoint three to five grand jury commissioners from the same pool who are charged with compiling a list of 15 to 40 potential grand jurors for the court. The court summons the selected persons, eventually selecting 12 jurors and two alternate jurors from the pool for a specific case. Jurors must be citizens of the county in which they serve, literate in English and have no felony criminal record. Two jurors living in the same town or general geographic area would not be selected. They can't have served on a grand jury or as a commissioner in the previous 12 months. They cannot be related to anyone else on the same jury or have any connection to the case being decided.
Secrecy of the Proceedings
Only certain people are permitted to be present at grand jury proceedings in Texas – the jurors themselves, prosecutor representing the state, witnesses called to testify, bailiff and a stenographer or audio technician to make a record of the proceedings. Texas law also allows translators to be present when necessary. When witnesses are sworn in, they must take an oath not to reveal anything they see or hear in the grand jury room. If they do repeat anything, they can be charged with contempt of court which carries a penalty of up to $500 in fines and up to six months in jail. The accused isn’t allowed to be present at the proceedings unless he’s called to testify as a witness and his lawyer must remain outside the room unless he has the express consent of the prosecutor to sit in on the proceedings.
A grand jury proceeding is not really a trial – the jurors can vote true bill or no bill, but they don’t have the authority to actually convict the accused without a full trial. The jury’s foreman presides, not a judge, and many of the normal rules of evidence are waived. The grand jurors call witnesses and question them for information, then move on to the next witness. The prosecutor can question the witnesses as well. In some Texas counties, the prosecutors allow the accused’s attorney to submit a “grand jury packet” for the jurors’ review and consideration. This generally includes a legal brief, or argument, along with evidence, exhibits and affidavits of testimony from the accused or others.
The Role of Witnesses
Witnesses can’t refuse to appear before a grand jury if they’re summoned to give testimony. If they do, they’ll be held in contempt of court, liable for a fine of up to $500 and can be sent to jail until they agree to cooperate. The accused can’t be forced to testify – he has a constitutional right to refuse to answer any questions that might incriminate him. He doesn’t have a right to testify, either, but he can let the grand jury know that he wants to speak and the final decision is left to the jurors.
Effect of Testimony on Trial
If the accused does testify, anything he says can be used against him later in a court proceeding if the grand jury delivers a true bill and the case goes to trial. If he’s retained an attorney to stand by outside the grand jury room, he’s allowed to take breaks to confer with him for legal advice in the event a question is posed that he feels he can’t answer without incriminating himself.
- Texas Legislature: Texas Constitution and Statutes, Code of Criminal Procedure, Title 1, Chapter 20 – Duties and Powers of the Grand Jury
- Office of District Attorney, Harris County, Texas: Frequently Asked Questions – Grand Jury
- Rosenthal & Wadas: Texas Grand Jury FAQ
- Harris County District Courts: Grand Jury Info, Frequently Asked Questions
- Texas District and County Attorneys Association: Lone Star Grand Jury Selection and Independence
- Photo Credit stockage/iStock/Getty Images
Grand Jury Procedures in New Jersey State
Grand juries in New Jersey, as in other states, are made up of ordinary citizens. Using prima facie (at first appearance) evidence,...
What is a Grand Jury?
A grand jury is an assembly of citizens who are responsible for determining if enough evidence is present for a criminal indictment....
How to Get Excused From Jury Duty
Contact the jury coordinator. You can do this simply by telephoning the clerk of the court for which you are summoned. The...
How Are Grand Juries Chosen?
According to Dictionary.com, a grand jury is "a jury, at common law, of 12 to 23 persons, designated to inquire into alleged...
Three Types of Juries in Texas
Each Texas county has at least one grand jury of 23 members who are selected at random, usually through voter registration lists....
Is an Arrest Warrant Issued Prior to an Indictment in Texas?
The process for arrest in Texas or in any other state can be confusing. Although almost everyone understands what an arrest is,...
How to Write a Good Character Witness Statement
Character witnesses are often called to testify in civil cases---most often in family court hearings like child custody---when a party's personal ethics...
How Can I Find Out If I Am Under Indictment?
An indictment usually occurs after a prosecutor presents evidence to a grand jury, which decides which charges against a defendant should be...