When you are accused of a felony in New York State, your local district attorney will need to get an indictment from the grand jury before they can take you to court. It is important to understand that it is possible for someone who is not indicted to still go to trial, but it happens very rarely. When a defendant is told that their case will be heard by the grand jury, the temptation is to testify. But as any defense attorney will tell you, testifying in front of the grand jury is a bad idea.
Grand Jury Versus A Jury Trial
In a jury trial there is a jury of 12 people who must all come to an unanimous decision before a verdict can be reached. With a grand jury, there can be anywhere from 16 to 23 jurors and only 12 need to agree for a defendant to be indicted. Right off the bat, it is easy to see that this arrangement is not defendant-friendly.
One thing that most people do not know about a grand jury is that there is no judge presiding over the process. With a grand jury, the prosecutor assigned to the case is the person who instructs and manages the jury. From the moment a grand jury starts, it is skewed against the defendant.
No Burden Of Proof
In a standard jury trial, it is necessary for the prosecutor to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that all doubt as to the defendant’s guilt must be removed to find the defendant guilty. In a grand jury, there only needs to be reasonable cause to gain an indictment. In other words, as long as guilt seems probable, it is easy for a prosecutor to get an indictment from a grand jury.
It Is Private
All grand jury proceedings are private and closed. There are no cameras allowed into a grand jury room, and the defendant is not allowed into the jury room either. The only way a defendant gets into the jury room is if they plan on testifying on their own behalf. This can be an effective ploy if the defendant’s attorney is allowed to cross-examine witnesses.
No Cross-Examining Witnesses
Even if the defendant decides to testify, the defendant’s attorney is not allowed to cross-examine any witnesses. However, the prosecutor is allowed to cross-examine the witness as often as they like.
When you understand the rules of a grand jury, you start to realize that a grand jury is just a temporary obstacle towards getting a defendant for a felony case into a courtroom for a real trial. It is extremely easy for the prosecutor to manipulate the grand jury to get an indictment, but it is almost impossible for the defendant to have their story heard. Most defense attorneys will recommend against testifying in front of a grand jury, and there are many good reasons for that recommendation.