In courtroom dramas portrayed on television and in movies we hear the term “grand jury” a lot. We even hear it on the six o’clock news as the anchorperson reads a story from the prompter about a “grand jury” indicting someone. Jury duty and court hearings are often depicted on TV and in movies, but how much of the process that we see is how it actually happens? What does it mean to serve on a jury? What is it like? Do I really have to be isolated from my friends and family and avoid the news while I serve on a jury?
Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!
Fast Facts: What’s the Difference between a Grand Jury and a Trial Jury?
Grand juries and trial juries are made up of normal everyday people who were issued a jury summons; however, they each serve entirely different purposes. In a nutshell, a grand jury helps determine whether or not charges should be brought against a suspect and a trial jury actually renders a verdict at the trial itself. In other words, a grand jury formally indicts someone (accuses them) of doing something and a trial jury decides that persons’ guilt or innocence at a separate proceeding.
In Depth: What is a Grand Jury?
A grand jury consists of 23 people each serving jury duty for up to months at a time (though many of them will only work a few days at a time). This group of people is responsible for helping the prosecutor in a case decide whether or not charges need to be filed against a suspect in a crime. While they take the jurors reaction and perception of the evidence seriously, if a prosecutor strongly disagrees with the grand jury’s decision on whether or not to charge a suspect, they can ignore the decision and proceed as they see fit.
During the grand jury process, the jurors will work hand-in-hand with the prosecutors. Prosecutors will explain the law to the jurors who can request to see any kind of evidence available in order to make the best decision. Whereas in a trial jury hearsay is not permitted, in a grand jury, it is permitted since the grand jury is considered part of the investigatory process.
Grand jury proceedings are not like a criminal trial. A judge does not preside over the proceedings and the suspect is not present. Jurors are permitted to interview witnesses, but there is no cross-examination.
In order to protect the integrity of the investigation and to encourage witnesses to speak freely, Maryland law requires all grand jury proceedings to be kept secret. This means that jurors cannot text, call, email or speak with anyone regarding details about the proceedings. This secrecy also restricts what jurors can post on their social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Furthermore, grand jurors are not allowed do their own outside research on the case, record, take pictures or use any electronic devices during proceedings. Violation of these secrecy laws can result in a $1,000 fine and up to 1 year in prison.
So, what is a Trial Jury then?
These are more what we’re accustomed to seeing on television and in movies. A trial jury is the group of 12 individuals we see perched in the little wooden box in every courtroom scene in every TV show and movie. The trial jury must decide which side of the fence they are on at a formal criminal trial. In other words: is this person guilty or innocent? Oftentimes in movies and TV we see these juries portrayed by 12 individuals, but they can sometimes be as small as a group of 6 average people. Unlike a grand jury, trial jurors will have to work every day of the trial which could last days, weeks or even months.
Court procedures during a trial are very strict and controlled by the judge presiding over the case. Unlike in a grand jury proceeding, a trial jury has no say in what kind of evidence is presented to them. The prosecutor has likely already used the grand jury as a test run for their evidence and will have picked out what they think is most impactful to the case they are trying to make. Trial juries also don’t have the opportunity to ask questions, unlike grand juries.
Trial jurors may also be “sequestered” or asked to isolate from the rest of the world for the duration of their trial. This is to ensure an unbiased opinion is not put at risk by outside influences (the news, family members, friends, etc.) If you are sequestered, your nightly accommodations and food arrangements are paid for by the courts. Even though we see it happening a lot on television, jury sequestering actually happens very rarely in Maryland. If you have to serve for more than one day, you will more than likely be able to go home for the evening.
How are decisions made?
In a trial jury, once closing arguments have been made, the judge will dismiss the members of the jury to the jury room where they will make their decision or “deliberate”. The decision of the jury must be unanimous and jurors will have to remain in the jury room until everyone reaches an agreement. Grand jury proceedings, on the other hand, require only a supermajority of either 2/3 or ¾ of the 23 jurors in order to indict the suspect. As we mentioned before, even if the grand jury chooses not to indict, a prosecutor may still bring charges against the defendant, sending them to trial. Without the grand jury indictment, the prosecutor will have to prove to the trial judge that he or she has enough evidence to continue with the case.
Do you have more questions about how juries work? Give us a call!
If you’re being investigated for a crime or if you’ve recently been charged, we strongly encourage you reach out to a skilled and knowledgeable attorney immediately. Having a qualified defense team who know and understand the ins and outs of the criminal justice system and who will work diligently to protect your legal rights is imperative to achieving a successful outcome in your case. Give the criminal defense attorneys at Ferrante, Dill & Hisle, LLC a call today (410) 535-6100 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve recently been selected as a member of a jury and have more questions, Maryland state has put together a number of useful resources to help! You can check these resources out here: