Who Is a Grand Jury?

Grand juries are much in the news. But who are these people?

Grand juries make the initial decision to indict–formally accuse–a criminal defendant and require him or her to stand trial. Grand jury indictments are required for all federal felonies. About half the states have some sort of grand jury hurdle too. Grand jurors are ordinary citizens who listen to the prosecutor questioning witnesses. Unlike a trial, a Grand Jury proceeding is private, and there is no cross examination or presentation of the defense case. In fact, witnesses may not even have a lawyer present during questioning. And jurors themselves may ask questions.

Grand jury service is an extraordinary burden. A typical federal grand juror serves for 18 months, attending two all-day sessions a week, and hearing whatever cases come along. (The Grand Jury hearing Ken Starr’s evidence is up to three days a week.) If the 18 months runs out in the middle of a long case, the supervising judge can tack six months onto the jury’s term. (After that, a new grand jury reads past transcripts and picks up where the other left off.) Occasionally, a judge will assign a sure-to-be-lengthy case to a “special grand jury” which may meet for up to three years! Grand jurors are paid $40 per day of service, plus $3 for transportation, except for government employees, who get full pay.

Grand juries consist of 16 to 23 jurors (it’s up to the judge), but 12 yes votes are always required for an indictment. Grand jurors are selected from the same voter registration rolls used to pick ordinary federal jurors. Hundreds are summoned when a new jury is needed and then the judge excuses people who would find it especially burdensome to give up two or three days a week for a year and a half. As a result, grand jurors are generally retirees, the unemployed, or government employees.

Do we know the grand jurors’ identities? Officially, no. Grand jurors can’t say what case they are hearing, even after the case is over. And the court doesn’t release the grand juror’s names either. However, witnesses spend hours in the same room as the grand jurors and of course learn what the jurors look like. Witnesses, unlike grand jurors, can talk about what happened in the grand jury room, and sometimes describe grand juries to journalists. (For those interested in Starr’s grand jury: witnesses tell USA Today that jurors are “overwhelmingly black, predominantly female and mostly middle-aged.” Some witnesses say jurors refused to pay attention to testimony; laughed and clapped at a witness’s wisecrack; and departed at precisely 4:30pm, in the midst of a prosecutor’s question.)

Explainer notes that it wouldn’t be hard for a reporter to find out the identities of Starr’s grand jurors–just ask around to see who’s been missing 2-3 days of work for the last 70 weeks–but so far this hasn’t become part of the journalistic ritual.

Explainer thanks Professor Susan Brenner of the University of Dayton Law School and Professor Paul Butler of George Washington University Law School.