Called “grand” because they traditionally had 23 members, compared to a “petit jury” which consisted of 12 members, Grand Juries do not determine a person’s guilt but instead determine whether probable cause exists to charge a person with a felony. The origin of the grand jury is lost to history, but during the reign of Henry II of England (AD 1154-AD 1189), an act called the Assize of Clarendon established a “jury of presentment” which is the prototype of modern grand juries.
While grand juries are no longer used in the United Kingdom, the United States Constitution requires presentment or indictment for any felon charges. Specifically, the Fifth Amendment says: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury….”
The grand jury process in Texas is governed by Chapters 19 and 20 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. In Texas, a grand jury consists of 12 members plus a few alternates. The votes of nine of the twelve members are required for an indictment. A grand jury only determines whether probable cause exists to charge a person with a crime, a far lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for a criminal conviction. When a grand jury makes an indictment, the foreperson signs the charging document as a “true bill.” On the other hand, where a the grand jury declines to indict a person document is noted as a “no bill.”
Grand jury proceedings are secret and defense attorneys are not allowed in the jury room (although they may wait outside in the hallway to confer with their client if the defendant testifies at the grand jury). In recent years Tarrant County and other Texas counties have become more open to allowing defense attorneys to make presentations of evidence at grand juries. Typically this will include affidavits, witness statements, photographs or other evidence that may help the grand jury see that indictment is not warranted. However, because the level of proof required to make an indictment is so low (probable cause), it is sometimes not a good idea for a defendant to present his best evidence to a grand jury in hopes of preventing indictment. A defendant may only succeed in informing the state of weaknesses in the case against the defendant but still be indicted, whereas the same evidence or argument at trial might convince a jury that the defendant is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in appropriate cases, avoiding indictment is possible and it is important to make sure the grand jury sees evidence that counters the state’s allegations.
Our attorneys have helped people accused of serious felonies avoid indictment by presenting relevant evidence to the grand jury. If you have been accused of a felony in Tarrant County, call us at 817-440-4444 to see if we can help you before you are indicted.