What is a Grand Jury Indictment

In Mississippi State and Federal Court no person can be put to trial for a felony unless they are first indicted by a Grand Jury. A felony is a major crime where the punishment is possible incarceration in the State Prison. A misdemeanor is a petty crime that may carry up to a year in jail, but the jail time would be in the County Jail or County Work Farm.

A Grand Jury is a group of citizens called from the county who sit in review of evidence presented by law enforcement and the District Attorney. The Grand Jury only determines whether or not enough probable cause to believe the accused committed and crime and he/she should stand trial. The Grand Jury does not consider guilt or innocence, and no one appears for the accused in the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury is in the hands of the District Attorney. For years defense lawyers have joked that if the District Attorney wanted to he could indict a ham sandwich. This was just a expression of how much control the District Attorney has over the process.

When a jury is summoned to a County Courthouse, the judge selects randomly around 20 people to serve on the Grand Jury. These people go to a private room where the District Attorney presents a short or abbreviated review of the evidence on each person who it is believed committed a crime. The District Attorney will also call witnesses who may testify before the Grand Jury. The people present are usually law enforcement witnesses or other lay witnesses. Sometimes a person accused of a crime will be subpoenaed to the Grand Jury. The person accused has a right to invoke the Fifth (5th) Amendment right not to say any thing that might be incriminating. As a general rule I always urge someone who has been subpoenaed to the Grand Jury to consult a lawyer before making any comment or statement. A lawyer can go to the District Attorney or Federal Prosecutor and find out if the witness is a suspect or target of the Grand Jury, or just a fact witness.

Many times prosecutors will use the Grand Jury as an investigative tool and they may subpoena an accused to the Grand Jury. The accused does not have the right to take his attorney in the Grand Jury room, but he has the right to step outside after every question and speak with his attorney. His attorney can then advise him whether or not he should plead the Fifth Amendment. A person accused has the right to plead the Fifth Amendment not just to direct questions like, “Did you commit this crime,” but the accused can plead the Fifth Amendment to any questions that might lead to a “chain of facts that might connect the accused to a crime.” In my 29 years I have seen savvy prosecutors make great strategic use of the Grand Jury and I have witnessed naive people admit to crimes and commit additional crimes by going before a Grand Jury unrepresented.

If a person gets called before a Grand Jury and invokes his/her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, the prosecutor cannot force out the testimony without going to the Judge and getting an Order Compelling the Testimony. When the Judge enters an Order compelling the testimony, then the witness is automatically given immunity from prosecution from the government by any use of the compelled testimony. There are two types of immunity, “Use” and “Transactional.” The differences are beyond the scope of my article but can be important. That is why an experienced lawyer is necessary in these situations.

I have written on this issues before. We all enjoy certain rights. These rights are found in the Bill of Rights, and in Rules of Court, case law, and Statutes. I firmly believe and have said before that if you are asked to be questioned by law enforcement or sent a Grand Jury subpoena, you should always talk to a lawyer before you make ANY STATEMENT, COMMENT, OFF HAND REMARK, OR SAY ANYTHING WHAT SO EVER. After all, we have always been taught that it is better to be safe than be sorry. And I can’t think of a better time for someone to exercise that principle.

Merrida Coxwell is an attorney with 29 years experience helping people charged with criminal offenses. His clients have included professionals, lawyers, judges, and many others. His experience extends to white collar crimes and serious offense. In addition to his criminal defense work Merrida helps people who are seriously injured. One of his civil cases stands as one of the largest verdicts rendered Mississippi.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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