When it comes to the topic of juries, there can be quite a bit of confusion as to the difference between a grand jury and a trial jury (also known as a petit jury).
Both groups are made up of ordinary American citizens who have been called to hear evidence on criminal justice cases. But beyond that, there are stark differences between the two groups.
- Purpose. For trial juries, the purpose is to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a case. Trial jurors listen to and review evidence to determine whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. For grand juries, they have more of an advisory role to the prosecutor. They help to determine if there is enough probable cause in a case for an indictment for criminal charges. Grand juries do not determine guilt. They only ascertain if there enough evidence for a trial and a conviction. A prosecutor is not obligated to follow a grand jury’s advice and can use the grand jury as a test run to see if their suspect can actually be indicted—especially if it didn’t work the first time with another grand jury.
- Attendance. Unlike in trial juries, where a defendant and his or her attorney are expected to attend the court proceedings, in grand juries, they are not permitted to attend. Instead, it is only any needed support staff, the jurors, the judge, the prosecutor, and potential witnesses that the prosecutor may choose to present to the jury.
- Evidence. For trial juries, the kind of evidence allowed in court is much stricter than for grand juries. Specifically, the evidence must be legally obtained and presented in a fair manner. On the other hand, for grand juries, the evidentiary requirements are much broader. A prosecutor can present any kind of evidence that he or she sees fit—including illegally obtained evidence.
- Votes Required. Trial juries must give a unanimous verdict from all 12 jurors for a conviction. To have a unanimous vote is important for the defendant’s constitutional right to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Grand juries have 23 jurors, and only a simple majority, 12, is required for an indictment. Remember—the grand jury’s role is to only ascertain if the evidence presented to them has probable cause for an indictment, not to prove guilt.
- Timeframe. Trial juries will typically meet almost every day for a short time. In comparison, grand juries will meet only a few times a month within 6 months to more than a year.
- Formal vs Informal. Although the name grand jury may sound fancier, the hearing is actually more casual than a trial jury. The reasoning behind this is for efficiency’s sake. Also, it allows for all the evidence to be presented and heard openly and honestly. Witnesses will generally feel more comfortable testifying in front of a grand jury than to a more formal trial jury which is also in front of the defendant, his or her legal team, and the public. The evidentiary requirements for a trial jury also lend itself to the formal court proceedings.
- Privacy. Not only are trial jury cases open to the public for attendance, they are also typically a part of the public record. Grand jury proceedings are secret and confidential, but the suspect, along with his or her attorney, may obtain a transcript of the grand jury hearing after some time.
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