What does it mean if you've been indicted by a grand jury? It certainly sounds ominous and it definitely means that legal trouble is ahead, but before you panic you should understand exactly what it is and what it means for your future.
An indictment isn't a conviction.
Many people confuse an indictment with a conviction. The reality, however, is that a grand jury indictment is nothing more than a formal charge in a criminal case. It's issued after a prosecutor presents whatever evidence he or she wishes to the grand jury that you're guilty of a serious crime, called a felony.
If the crime is being prosecuted by the state, 6 to 12 people will be called on to serve on the grand jury. If the crime is being prosecuted by the federal government, the grand jury could range from 16 to 23 people.
If the grand jury agrees with the prosecutor, they will issue a "true bill" decision, which means that they feel that there is enough evidence to support the time and expense of charging you with a crime and possibly taking it to trial. If they don't agree with the prosecutor and fail to indict you, the case will usually stop there (although prosecutors aren't barred from trying again, especially if they gather new evidence).
A grand jury is a prosecutor's tool.
If you've been indicted by a grand jury, the first thing to do is to keep it in perspective. A grand jury is usually held in secret, and neither you nor your attorney are usually present. While the prosecutor is supposed to present the grand jury with any "exculpatory" evidence that might show your absence of guilt, what he or she actually presents is largely a judgment call. In addition, the rules of evidence are very relaxed, so a prosecutor can often present things like hearsay evidence (which is rarely allowed in regular court).
This means that a grand jury is ultimately a tool for the prosecution and the odds of a true bill, or indictment, are extremely high. To give you an idea of exactly how rare it is for a grand jury not to return an indictment, research indicates that out of more than 162,000 cases presented to grand juries between 2009 and 2010 only 11 failed to indict.
Critics of the grand jury system point out that because the process is one-sided and doesn't give the defendant a chance to present a rebuttal case, the grand jury can be misused by the prosecution as a tool to try to gain psychological leverage over a defendant.
Once indicted, a defendant knows that the prosecutor has the ability to issue a warrant for his or her arrest and put his life into the chaos of a trial. Indictments are sometimes used to try to gain leverage over a defendant when the prosecutor wants to get one defendant to "flip" or testify against another. A prosecutor will get an indictment, but keep it sealed and hold it without acting on it, using the potential of the criminal charges as leverage to try to sway the person under indictment to testify against someone else.
What should you do if your case is going to a grand jury?
At the first sign that a prosecutor is taking a criminal charge against you to a grand jury, retain an attorney. You want to be prepared for the indictment because the odds are very high that you will be indicted.
Once indicted, you'll no doubt find out whether the prosecutor wants your testimony against someone else or intends to take the case to court. At that point, your attorney can begin trying to arrange for your surrender on the charges and either begin negotiations for a plea bargain or start structuring your defense.
Keep in mind that, despite the formal charges, no one has heard your side of the case yet. Your case isn't hopeless because a prosecutor managed to get an indictment. The actual court case may play out very differently once a regular jury and judge are there to hear your defense.
To learn more, contact a criminal law firm like Begley Carlin & Mandio LLP.