The grand jury proceedings are very much unlike actual criminal trials, as their sole purpose is only to establish if there exists any probable cause that a defendant has committed a crime (Chittal, 2014). Grand juries have no power to establish guilt or accomplish anything beyond securing an indictment that would move a criminal case forward into an actual trial court. A grand jury is therefore much more lenient and informal than a jury in a criminal trial, in that they do not have the same burden in finding a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to indict them for trial. Furthermore, a judge is not present in grand jury proceedings, leaving prosecutors and witnesses with essentially free reign to speak, argue their case as they please, and cooperate with the grand jury in the evidence gathering and analysis processes (W., 2014). Other noteworthy characteristics of the grand jury process include that the grand jury is comprised of a larger group than trial juries at between 12 and 23 members and that grand juries have investigatory powers in addition to their ability to bring an indictment against a defendant (Chittal, 2014).
The grand jury process ultimately begins with a prosecutor explaining the relevant law as it exists to the jury, and then subsequently working together with them to search for and analyze any evidence as well as enter witness testimony as evidence. That evidence is not subject to any of the typical restrictions that a trial court would often require, allowing the grand jury to utilize any available evidence in their decision-making, even if that evidence will ultimately be disallowed at trial. The grand jury proceedings are also unavailable to the public for the primary purpose of allowing witnesses to speak their mind without the anxiety and stress of having to do so under public scrutiny. The defendant may testify, although is typically advised not to by their attorney as doing so can strengthen the grand jury’s decision to indict (Freivogel, 2014). Following the aforementioned process of informing the grand jury of the law, process, and the accused’s supposed role in the violation of the law, the process continues in essentially mimicking that of a criminal trial, albeit with the aforementioned differences in procedure. The grand jury can however take measures to subpoena more evidence and testimony as it pleases and must interpret all evidence gathered and analyzed according to the standards of probable cause (Joy, 2017). The prosecutor, being aware of this, will rely on much weaker and even outrageous arguments because of that lowered standard and as a means of attempting to secure an indictment.
Once a grand jury concludes its duty of gathering and analyzing evidence and witness testimony, they much reach a decision in terms of whether to indict. Unlike during a criminal trial, a grand jury does not need to reach a unanimous decision, only requiring either a 2/3 or a 3/4 majority, depending on the jurisdiction and whether it is a state or federal case. Once the decision on whether to indict is made, the prosecutor on the case is given several options in regards to proceeding to a criminal trial. If the jury does choose to indict, the prosecutor is able to proceed directly to trial without any further effort. However, without an indictment, a prosecutor is burdened with having to convince a judge that they have enough evidence against the defendant to meet a burden of proof. That takes place during the course of a preliminary hearing in open court and provides the defense with a significant advantage of gaining preliminary access to the prosecution’s arguments and evidence (Freigvogel, 2014). The judge then decides on whether or not that evidence is sufficient and if a criminal trial can proceed.