Grand Jury Information
The function of the grand jury is to examine evidence presented and determine whether there is reasonable cause to hold a criminal defendant over for trial. If so, then the Grand Jury votes or returns an indictment. Approximately half of the states in the United States and the Federal Government employ grand juries. Twenty-two states require their use, including New York State.
A grand jury in New York State consists of no less than 16 sitting jurors and no more than 23. Grand jurors are an arm of the Court and are drawn from the same pool of potential jurors as are any other jury panel, and in the same manner. The pool generally consists of names pulled from various databases, such as national voter lists, motor vehicle license lists and public utilities lists.
Unlike trial jurors, grand jurors do not undergo any lengthy questioning by attorneys. Rather, grand jurors are impaneled by the Court and rarely disqualified. If you are selected to be a grand juror by the Commissioner of Jurors, it is very likely that you will be seated by the Court and sworn in as a grand juror.
Article 190 of the Criminal Procedure Law is the legal framework for the grand jury. Section 190.05 through section 190.90 governs the grand jury and its proceedings. The prosecutor and Court act as the legal advisors to the grand jury. In each case the prosecutor presents evidence and testimony from witnesses.
There is no judge present in the grand jury room. Typically, it is only the prosecutor, the witness, a court stenographer and the grand jurors. Each witness is automatically given / granted immunity for their testimony unless they waive immunity prior to testifying. If a witness refuses to swear an oath, testify before a grand jury or answer proper questions, they risk being held in contempt of court or indicted for criminal contempt.
Sworn to Secrecy
Each grand juror, the prosecutor and everyone appearing before that body is sworn to secrecy. Unlawful disclosure of grand jury proceedings is a crime under the Penal Law of the State of New York. This ensures that the grand jury is free to deliberate without outside pressure and prevents perjury or witness tampering prior to trial. It further encourages people with information about a crime to speak freely. Secrecy also protects any wrongfully accused/innocent persons from disclosure of the fact that he or she is/was being investigated.
The prosecutor is responsible for all legal instruction and provides the law/charges to the grand jury. The prosecutor questions each witness and the grand jurors are also permitted to ask the witness additional questions at the end of the witness's testimony. The prosecutor is responsible to ensure that the rules of evidence are followed and may instruct the witness not to answer a grand juror's question if the prosecutor believes the question is improper or the answer would fall outside the rules of allowable evidence.
A grand juror does not decide whether the subject of the grand jury investigation is guilty or not, the grand jury decides, based upon the evidence and testimony presented to them, whether there exists reasonable cause to believe the subject has committed an offense and should be formally charged and held over for trial for said offense. The grand jury's decision must be based upon the evidence and the law. The grand jury can vote to:
- Direct the prosecutor to file an "information" accusing the subject of a lesser offense
- Issue a grand jury report
- Refer a matter to family court