Grand Juries: What Does That Mean?
“Your case has been referred to the Grand Jury.” It sounds scary, right? But it really is not. More often than not, an arrest has already occurred, and it is not going to get worse than that in the criminal process. Essentially, the Grand Jury serves as a gatekeeper to ensure that probable cause exists in a criminal case. Texas government asserts that “the breadth of grand jury authority and power makes it the most effective forum available to the government for the interrogation of witnesses and forceful fact-finding.” The reality is far different.
The old adage is that “a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich,” and the adage is not far from the truth. When a case is referred to a Grand Jury, the only person in the room besides the Grand Jurors is the prosecutor, and the rules of evidence do not apply. In Grand Jury proceedings, usually the prosecutor calls the arresting officer to the stand, who then testifies to the circumstances surrounding the arrest. The arresting officer is allowed to testify to what any other witnesses have said. After that, in theory, the prosecutor then instructs the Grand Jurors on the law of the case. In reality, the prosecutor tells the Grand Jury what charge is appropriate. In theory, if the Grand Jurors have questions and would like to hear from additional witnesses, they have the power to subpoena them. In reality, this rarely happens. The reason they rarely call witnesses is because the prosecutor only presents his side of the story. Thereafter, the Grand Jury either returns a “true bill,” meaning probable cause existed or a “no bill,” declaring that it did not.
There are several aspects of the Grand Jury proceedings that are concerning. As we mentioned, criminal defense attorneys like Mr. Pham are not allowed to be present on behalf of their clients in order to cross examine the prosecutor’s witnesses. Nor is he allowed to call witnesses on his client’s behalf. We have seen cases on crime drama television where the defendant serves notice that he would like to testify before the Grand Jury. This may be the procedure elsewhere, but in Houston, Texas, it is not allowed. While Mr. Pham rarely suggests that testifying is good idea, in some cases it is appropriate. Nevertheless, the rules of the Grand Jury do not allow for it.
In addition, the Grand Jury proceedings are completely secret. The witnesses are not allowed to reveal what they said, and the Grand Jurors are not allowed to divulge what they heard. Furthermore, while the proceedings are transcribed, the transcript is not made available to criminal defense attorneys. Even if a witness’s testimony at trial is directly controverted by their own Grand Jury testimony, that is evidence that would never come to light.
In essence, the Grand Jury serves to rubber stamp an arrest by confirming that probable cause existed for the arrest. While it is generally regarded as a “kangaroo court,” it is nevertheless a harmless step that does not change the status of an accused’s case.
If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges for sex crime, and you want an experienced and aggressive criminal defense lawyer, contact Houston attorney Michael H. Pham at (713) 236-7791.