An explanation of a grand jury panel
CLEVELAND » Grand juries, panels of residents that decide if someone should be charged with a crime, have been part of the American legal system since the country was founded. Defense attorneys, bar associations and, increasingly, activists say grand juries have outlived their usefulness, especially after panel sin Missouri and New York voted not to indict police officers in fatal encounters with black men. Many states no longer use them and make prosecutors decide whether someone should be charged criminally.
Grand juries are required in Ohio, where one will decide if two white Cleveland police of f icers should be charged in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year- old boy carr ying a pellet gun.
Some questions and answers about grand juries:
Q What is a grand jury?
A The panel listens to evidence presented by prosecutors, asks questions if they choose and determines if criminal charges are warranted and what those charges should be. To obtain an indictment, prosecutors must convince grand jurors that it’s likely someone has committed a crime. That thresh- old, known as probable cause, is less than what’s required for a conviction, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Q How do they work in Ohio?
A In Ohio, a grand jury is comprised of nine jurors and as many as five alternates selected from county voting rolls. Seven of the nine jurors must vote to indict. Cuyahoga County, the state’s busiest Common Pleas jurisdiction with 12,000 new criminal cases filed last year, typically has two or three grand juries meeting simultaneously twice a week for eight hours. A grand jury in a small county might only meet once a week for a few hours.
Q What do jurors see and hear?
A Prosecutors control what evidence grand juries see and who testifies before them. In Cuyahoga County, that evidence in most cases consists of a police officer reading from a report. Witnesses are sometimes questioned in more complicated cases. Prosecutors aren’t required to present any evidence that might be favorable to a suspect. Last year, Cuyahoga County grand juries indicted more than 11,000 people while voting not to charge people 326 times.
Q Why are they secret?
A Grand jury secrecy is rooted in English common law dating back centuries, though England stopped using grand juries in the 1930s. The panels are supposed to be secret to protect the identities of grand jurors and allow them to vote their conscience. It also protects witnesses who might otherwise be reluctant to testify and suspects whose reputations could be sullied even if a grand jury votes not to indict them. Grand jury transcripts are sealed and are made public only in the rarest of circumstances. Grand jurors are not allowed to discuss ev- idence or say how they’ve voted on a particular case.
Q Why are they controversial?
A Critics say they are “rubber stamps,” which has led to the oftrepeated criticism that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich. The American Bar Association maintains that grand juries, especially at the federal level, no longer provide a safeguard against government overreach. Skeptics also say the secrecy saps public confidence. The common practice is for prosecutors to recommend charges after explaining the law to grand jurors.