What is Involved in Grand Jury Service?

Jessica Ellis

Being summoned for grand jury service may sound ominous, but it presents an opportunity to take part in an important part of a justice system. Grand juries review evidence presented by a federal prosecutor in order to determine whether there is reason for a trial. While involved in grand jury service, a person must do his or her utmost to examine the facts and make a decision compelled by logic and an understanding of the law. Grand jury service may be served at the state or federal level, depending on the jurisdiction of the crime in question. Rules regarding the size of the jury may vary from state to state, while federal grand juries always require between 16-23 members.

In the United States, a jury panel may be assembled as either a grand jury or a petit jury.
In the United States, a jury panel may be assembled as either a grand jury or a petit jury.

Grand jury service begins with a summons to appear on a specific date as a grand juror. Potential jurors are selected randomly from registered voters, though exclusions may be made for people who cannot speak or understand the primary national language, those who are mentally or physically incapable of serving, and people convicted of felonies or are under trial as a defendant for a crime. Jury duty can also sometimes be postponed, though different jurisdictions have varying regulations regarding postponement. Failure to appear when called, or to appear when selected for grand jury service, may result in fines and even jail time.

A jury summons demands the presence of a citizen in court for jury duty.
A jury summons demands the presence of a citizen in court for jury duty.

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When a jury is chosen, the court will make each member swear an oath to objectively examine the evidence and return a fair decision. The court will also appoint a foreman of the jury, who will speak for the whole group after private consultations. The judge or court official may then provide the jury with any pertinent information regarding privacy or special considerations for the trail they will be investigating.

Grand jury service is unlike most other forms of trial because it is conducted in total secrecy. The only people allowed in the courtroom besides court officials are the jury, the prosecutor, and witnesses giving testimony. Witnesses are not even permitted to bring their attorneys into the room, though they may leave to ask questions. Grand jury members are not permitted to speak to anyone, including friends, relatives, or spouses, about the proceedings and evidence presented.

Though it may seem somewhat unfair, the majority of the evidence presented to a grand jury trial is given by the prosecution. This is because the job of the grand jury is to decide whether federal charges should be filed; since none have already been filed, there is no defendant and thus no response from the defense. Grand jury service involves almost total reliance on the prosecutor's presentation of the facts and evidence.

Armed with that information, which may take days or weeks to unfold, the jury then must vote for an indictment, or have the case dismissed. This process is called deliberation, and may involve several rounds of discussion and voting. When a majority vote is reached, the jury foreman will inform the court. A vote for indictment means that the jury believes there is probable cause for a trial, while a dismissal occurs when a jury does not believe the evidence is enough to warrant a trial.

Grand jury duty involves listening to witnesses testify under oath and evaluating the evidence.
Grand jury duty involves listening to witnesses testify under oath and evaluating the evidence.

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