Ever wondered why indictments are filed by a grand jury? Here's what grand juries do

The historic criminal charges brought against former President Donald Trump involving dozens of counts of allegedly violating eight federal statutes related to the handling of classified documents after he left the White House has put the federal legal system into the spotlight as many wonder what happens next.

Trump received an indictment over the charges from a grand jury on Thursday, with his arraignment set in federal court in Miami on Tuesday at 2 p.m. CDT.

The 44-page indictment was unsealed on Friday and details the former president’s alleged crimes. Trump was charged with suggesting his lawyer falsely tell the FBI and grand jury that he didn't have classified documents and directing his aide Walt Nauta to move boxes of documents to hide them from the lawyer, the FBI and the grand jury, according to USA Today.

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Before that indictment could be filed, prosecutors presented an outline of their case that included evidence and witness testimony to a federal grand jury in Miami. Once the case has been heard, the grand jury votes in secret to file the indictment.

Here’s what the process looks like.

What is a grand jury?

A grand jury is an impartial group of 23 citizens who are tasked with determining whether or not there is probable cause to believe that someone has committed a federal offense within the venue of the district court, according to the Department of Justice.

The jury will meet once a week during its 12-month term. Attendance is critical for grand juries, which have a 16-member quorum if an emergency prevents a grand juror’s attendance. A grand jury must stop if a grand jury does not have a quorum.

Once a case has been presented to a grand jury, they will vote in secret to determine whether they will file an indictment or return a “no-bill,” which simply means the jury concluded there was not enough evidence of guilt to support a criminal charge.

A jury needs 12 or more votes to indict a defendant.

How is a grand jury selected?

Federal law dictates that grand juries are selected from a fair pool of citizens randomly drawn from lists of registered voters, according to the Handbook for Federal Grand Jurors. Similar to jury selection for a trial jury, the remaining candidates not exempt or excused will appear before the court where the presiding judge will consider any further requests to be excused. A selection of 23 qualified citizens will then become members of the grand jury.

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How is a grand jury different from a trial jury?

As described above, a grand jury’s only duty is to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the accused has committed a crime and should be put on trial. This group of 23 impartial citizens hears an outline of the argument against the accused, including evidence and witness testimony. They will then vote in secret to determine whether an indictment is filed against the defendant or to return a no-bill.

Grand jury proceedings are secret and not open to the public, and documentation regarding an indictment is sealed so that only the people present in the room have knowledge of the case.

A trial jury, also known as a petit jury, is a group of 12 impartial citizens who determine whether the defendant committed the crime as charged. These trials are typically public, aside from jury deliberations, and they issue a verdict rather than a true bill (indictment) or a no-bill.

Unlike grand juries, where defendants and attorneys don’t have the right to appear before it, defendants have the right to appear, testify and call witnesses on their behalf.

What happens if you’re chosen to be on a grand jury?

If you go through the grand jury selection process and become a qualified member of the grand jury then you will be one of 23 members obligated to meet once a week for a certain period, typically 12 months for grand juries designated “investigatory” and six months for grand juries designated “accusatory.”

Here is a condensed outline of the process outlined in the Handbook for Federal Grand Jurors:

Organization, oath and officers

The court will select one person to be the foreperson, or presiding officer, of the grand jury and a deputy foreperson to serve in the foreperson’s absence.

The grand jury then takes an oath binding them to their diligence and objectivity throughout the process.

The charge of the grand jury is when the presiding judge goes over its obligations and how to perform them. Once the grand jury is charged, it will begin hearing the case.

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A quorum must be met

To meet the quorum, 16 of the 23 jurors must be present. If the grand jury has less than 16 members then it must stop.

Evidence is brought before the grand jury

The brunt of the grand jury’s time will be spent hearing witness testimony and examining evidence to determine whether an indictment should be filed. Government attorneys are present throughout the process to present the evidence of allegations. The grand jury is also allowed to call additional witnesses.

Witnesses are called to testify

Witnesses will be called to testify before the grand jury. Witnesses will be sworn in by the foreperson and then be questioned first by the government attorney, then by the foreperson of the grand jury. Other members of the grand jury are allowed to question the witness afterward.

Attorneys are not permitted to be present, but witnesses maintain the right to consult with legal counsel and may ask to leave the room to talk with their attorney. Witnesses may also invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to not answer questions.

The person being investigated can request to appear before the grand jury

People being investigated for crimes by a grand jury do not have the right to be present during the process, but they can send a request to appear before the grand jury.

The grand jury meets to deliberate

Finally, the grand jury will meet to deliberate after all of the evidence of a case has been presented. At this point, everyone except for the grand jury must leave the room as it deliberates whether or not to file an indictment. An indictment requires 12 votes from the grand jury.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: What is a grand jury? Here's what happens if you're selected