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Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the Alabama Criminal Justice System

Posted by Erik Fine | Aug 21, 2020 | 0 Comments

What is the Function of a Grand Jury in Alabama

A Grand Jury is a group of people selected at random from the registered voter roles and empowered by law to conduct certain legal proceedings.  The Grand Jury's job is to determine if prosecutors have established probable cause in order to bring a felony criminal offense to trial.  The very nature of the Grand Jury proceeding is mysterious and secretive and the law maintains that mystery supposedly to protect the Jury members privacy and to prevent a potential criminal defendant from fleeing.  If the Grand Jury determines that no probable cause for the charge exists, a No Bill will be issued and the charges against a criminal defendant are dismissed.  If the Grand Jury finds probable cause, then a True Bill is issued and the charges then proceed to Circuit Court for trial.  Grand Juries may subpoena evidence and people to testify at it's proceedings.  It is essentially an investigative body used to determine if charges are warranted against a possible defendant. But is also supposedly a shield against unwarranted and unjust prosecutions.  In reality today, Grand Juries are far more sword than shield.  It is often said that you can indict a ham sandwich, meaning that Grand Juries almost always finds probable cause to proceed and merely acts as a rubber stamp for the prosecutor.  You may find it interesting that a criminal defendant and his counsel is not allowed to participate in Grand Jury proceedings.  Only the prosecutor and the police officers and certain witnesses are allowed to be present.  Additionally, the Federal Rules of Evidence, such as the prohibition of the use of Hearsay evidence and the prohibition of using "prior bad acts" of the defendant to assist in determining the possible guilt of the defendant in the current case, DO NOT APPLY!  Grand Jurors are allowed to ask the prosecutor and the police questions about anything! 

The law requires that a felony charge be indicted by a Grand Jury in order to proceed to trial.  You may be arrested prior to a Grand Jury Indictment, but there is no requirement for an arrest prior to criminal consideration by a Grand Jury or for a Grand Jury to bring an Indictment. In fact, many cases presented to the Grand Jury are presentation cases only, where a potential criminal defendant has not yet been arrested for the "new" offense.  How long a Grand Jury meets and how often they meet vary depending upon jurisdiction.  Some rural counties in Alabama only meet a couple times a year whereas other larger jurisdictions meet monthly. 

As I previously stated, a Grand Jury only hears evidence presented by the State and it's prosecutors, eyewitness testimony, and the like.  The criminal subject of the Grand Jury has no right to present evidence, attend, or even have an attorney present during a Grand Jury meeting.  A Defendant may request to give testimony at a Grand Jury (if he has already been arrested for the felony offense and knows that the Grand Jury will eventually hear the facts of the case), but this is extremely rare.  Jurors may ask questions of the witnesses and deliberations are done outside the presence of the prosecutor, judge or other parties. If a majority of the jury members vote that the state has presented enough evidence to establish probable cause, the case moves on as mentioned above.

Grand Jury proceedings are secret.  This adds to their mystery.  Witnesses not only take an oath to tell the truth, as you see on TV legal shows all the time, but they also swear not to divulge anything that happened during the witness testimony.  Believe it or not, even police officer and criminal defense lawyers or prosecutors can serve on Grand Juries!

Grand Jury History

Grand Juries have a storied history.  Going all the way back to King Henry II and the Magna Carta Grand, Grand Juries were used to protect against abuses from the crown.  Thus the Grand Jury has been described as the "Shield and the Sword" of the People: as a "Shield for the People" from abusive indictments of the government- or malicious indictments of individuals- and as the "Sword of the People" to cut away crime by any private individual; or to cut away crime by any public servant, whether in the Judicial, Executive, or Legislative branches.

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied 

Grand Jury proceedings can be extremely delayed, and even hurting a criminal defendant's ability to defend themselves against the crimes alleged.  It is not uncommon for a simple drug case to take years to be indicted for instance.  This can lead to loss of evidence that could exonerate a defendant, or loss of witnesses for the defense.  

Alabama Grand Jury Rules are listed below for further reading. 

Alabama Grand Jury Rules

What is the Difference between a Grand Jury and a Trial Jury

A Grand Jury is larger than a Trial Jury.  In Alabama, a Grand Jury consists of 18-24 members.  A trial jury, also known as a petit jury, consists of 12 members.  Grand Juries meet in secret and it's proceedings are secret.  Petit Juries are open to the public.  It's a Grand Jury's job to help the prosecutor bring charges against a criminal defendant. This is true because the District Attorney is usually the only person presenting evidence to a Grand Jury.   The burden on the state's prosecutors is also relaxed. A Grand Jury only needs to find probable cause that a crime was likely committed and that the defendant was the person who committed it.  

A Trail Jury is what you usually see on TV as well.  A Trial Jury in Alabama consists of only 12 members.  All 12 jurors must vote to convict a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. The Trial Jury is composed prior to a trial in Circuit Court.  Their job is to determine guilt or innocence, essentially.  A Trial Jury only works for the duration of a specific trial.  

Hire a Shelby County Criminal Lawyer

If you have more questions about Trial and Grand Juries please contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately.  If you are the subject of a criminal investigation of any kind, you need legal representation at every stage of the criminal defense process. A lawyer who understands the Grand Jury and Trial Jury process can substantially aid your legal defense.  

About the Author

Erik Fine

Attorney Erik D. Fine, A.A., B.S., J.D. Mr. Fine, an Alabama native, is a graduate of Mountain Brook Public Schools. He received an athletic scholarship to play baseball at Kansas City Kansas Community College from which he graduated with an Associates Degree in Law Enforcement in 1989. It was i...


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