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What Happens in a Federal Grand Jury?

The Role of Federal Agencies in Criminal Investigations

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are federal agencies that investigate crimes and gather evidence for U.S. Attorneys. After the investigators provide government attorneys with evidence that a crime has been committed, the government attorney decides whether or not there is sufficient evidence to charge a perpetrator with a crime. If so, the government attorney will present the case to the federal grand jury.

The Grand Jury

Some crimes require that a grand jury be present in the courtroom. The purpose of the grand jury is for a group of citizens to make an unbiased decision about whether or not the evidence points toward a perpetrator’s guilt. In order to do this, 16 to 23 people must be chosen for the grand jury. For there to be an indictment in a case, at least 12 of the jurors must agree that there is sufficient evidence to support it. According to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Constitution requires that the federal government employ a grand jury if the case in question is a felony case.

The Process

The court selects a number of impartial citizens to sit on a grand jury. The potential jurors are chosen in the grand jury’s district or division. They are chosen in a way that gives everyone an equal opportunity to be chosen for the grand jury. Names of potential jurors come from registered voters or from other sources. The potential jurors receive a summons to appear, and the judge will select 23 eligible people to serve on the grand jury. Each member of the grand jury will be sworn to secrecy, and this obligation is enshrined in the oath that each member of the grand jury must take. The oath ensures that grand jurors cannot be pressured by associates of those accused of crimes.

In a potential felony case, the government attorney will present the evidence that the federal agencies listed above gathered. The government attorney will also call witnesses and draw an outline of the felony that the perpetrator is believed to have committed. It is the grand jury’s job to listen to the testimony and consider all of the evidence so that it can determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to charge the accused with a crime.

The Evidence

Along with hearing witness testimony, the grand jury also examines the documentary evidence. The government attorney will be the one to present this evidence to the grand jury. The grand jury can also ask for additional witness testimony. The government attorney may prepare the formal written indictment, but the attorney will not be allowed to remain in the room while the grand jury is deliberating or voting on the indictment.

The grand jury’s foreperson must swear the witnesses in before they may testify. First, the government attorney questions the witness and then the grand jury’s foreperson questions the witness. The grand jury’s members may question the witness after the foreperson. The witness has permission to leave the room to consult with his or her attorney, and the grand jury must not hold this conduct against the witness.

In some cases, witnesses decline to answer a question by invoking the Fifth Amendment. If the grand jury believes that it needs to force the witness to answer the question, it can ask the court to offer a ruling on the matter.

The accused individual will not be asked to testify in most cases. This will also not be the time for witnesses to testify on behalf of the accused individual.


After all of the evidence has been presented, the grand jury will retire to a private area where jurors can discuss whether or not a crime has occurred. The grand jury decides whether or not a crime has been committed and whether or not the person accused of committing the crime should be indicted. Every grand juror has the opportunity to express his or her views on the matter at hand, and everyone is required to listen to each member. The grand jury will only take a vote after every juror has the chance to be heard.

After deliberations are over and the grand jury decides to indict the accused, the jury or its foreperson will inform the judge of its decision. The jury may also decide not to indict. In this instance, the foreperson will send a written note to the judge so that the accused may be released from prison.

The Aftermath

Everything that the witnesses say about a crime or a suspect and all of the proceedings would be sealed. Then, the only people with knowledge about what was said in court would be members of the grand jury.

After the defendant has been charged, he or she is entitled to hire a federal criminal defense attorney. If the defendant cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer, the government will appoint a public defender to the case. The public defender will be known as the “defense attorney,” and he or she will represent the defendant’s interests during the trial.

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