What is a Grand Jury?

Before I went to law school I used to wonder what made a Grand Jury, well, Grand. Was it bigger than a regular jury? Were the people who served on it smarter than regular jurors? Was a Grand Jury assigned to handle "Grand" cases while regular juries were stuck deciding the chump change stuff?

Officer Shoots Drug Junkie
I know this is an odd subheading given the first paragraph of this post, but let me explain. On Tuesday, I went down to the Leon County Circuit Courthouse for a hearing in the judge's chambers. Most days at Circuit are quiet. A couple of people in the hallway waiting to see a judge; a few lawyers talking about golf, what they did that weekend, etc. But not this Tuesday.

On Tuesday the third floor hallway (a wide hallway used to enter three courtrooms and six judge's chambers) was elbow to elbow with camera crews, news reporters, police officers and attorneys. As I tried to make my way past the throng I overheard a number of people discussing a police shooting and whether the police officer would be indicted for an “excessive force shooting.” I had read about the shooting in the paper.

It seems some three to four weeks prior, several police officers were called to the scene of a car wreck. One car had run a red light and hit another car. After the police arrived at the scene, the owner of one of the vehicles became unruly (the newspaper said without provocation). The owner pulled something about six inches long out of his car and began to charge one of the officers. It was dark. The officer thought it was a knife and put three bullets into the man’s chest. If memory serves, the object turned out to be a wrench. It was ultimately determined that the man was high on cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. No DUI lawyer in the Nation could have helped him.

As an aside, it also turns out that the man had stolen a gas card from one of my clients and run up a bill. I filed suit against the man and he had just been served with the papers shortly before the incident happened. I doubt the lawsuit led to the man’s drug induced state but you never know.

Back to the Grand Jury
That leads me to the reason the third floor hallway was so crowded. Everyone was waiting to find out whether the Grand Jury would indict the officer.

In Florida, a person can be indicted for a crime in one of two ways. The State Attorney can simply fill out the indictment papers himself or he can empanel a Grand Jury, present evidence and let the Grand Jury decide whether an indictment is appropriate. The former is most often used when the State Attorney wants to take credit for the indictment. The latter is usually chosen in high profile cases where the State Attorney does not want to take the blame for indicting.

Using a Grand Jury, the State Attorney can avoid being the bad guy in a case like the one above. If the Grand Jury indicts, the State Attorney can say “it wasn’t me, it was the Grand Jury.” If the Grand Jury doesn’t indict, the State Attorney can say “see, there wasn’t even enough evidence to convince a Grand Jury.” Hearsay evidence is admissible as well as other evidence that could not be admitted at trial. That is because a Grand Jury does not determine guilt or innocence. Only whether there is enough evidence that someone may have committed a crime.
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