Most people do not have very much experience dealing with grand juries so when they learn that a grand jury is investigating them most people have questions about the process and what to expect. It’s a part of federal criminal law that is shrouded in mystery to outsiders. However, understanding what will happen in a grand jury investigation does not have to be difficult, if you know the basics of what grand juries do.
What Grand Juries Are
A grand jury is a group of ordinary citizens that is tasked with investigating suspected criminal activities and deciding whether to issue indictments, which are more commonly known as criminal charges. The grand jury can consist of up to 23 people, but there are often fewer. Technically, federal judges impanel the jury. However, as a practical matter, federal prosecutors control the process from beginning to end.
A grand jury can subpoena witnesses and documents. Because the grand jury cannot convict anyone of a crime, the law is not as concerned with the technical rules of evidence as it is in an actual criminal trial. Documents and questions that would not be allowed under the Federal Rules of Evidence are routinely submitted for the grand jury to review and the group might even base its decision to indict on evidence that will not be allowed at a subsequent trial.
Testifying Before a Grand Jury
If you are called to testify before a grand jury, the first thing you might notice is that your attorney will not be present in the room to assist you. You will not be allowed to have an attorney present to object to any questions that might be irrelevant. Instead, your attorney will have to stay outside in the hallway. You will be allowed to leave the grand jury room and ask questions of your attorney. You can normally do so as often as you like unless you are only doing so to disrupt the process.
The federal prosecutor will be present and will be the person asking you questions while you are testifying before the grand jury. It is very important that you pay attention to every question that you are asked. You do not have to answer any questions if a truthful answer might have the tendency to incriminate you. It would be a good idea to ask to leave the grand jury room and speak to your attorney if you think you should refuse to answer such a question.
You do need to be careful to answer any other questions truthfully. When you testify before the grand jury you are put under oath and can be charged with perjury if you are not honest. This can get a little tricky as you can even be prosecuted for contradicting yourself. One of the favorite tricks of federal prosecutors is to ask the same question at different times to see if a suspect will give a different answer the second or third time. You might even be asked to appear before the grand jury on several different occasions for this very reason. If that happens, make sure that you review your answers from your prior testimony so that you answer the same questions in the same way every time that you testify.
At times, you might be asked to bring documents before the grand jury. If you are the custodian of business records for a corporation, for example, you might be asked to bring corporate records before the grand jury. The prosecutor will ask you questions about what the documents contain and how they are maintained. Again, you need to answer truthfully. You will also want to review the documents with your attorney before appearing before the grand jury so that you are not surprised by their contents.
While the grand jury is technically independent of the prosecutor, in reality grand juries indict almost everyone that a prosecutor asks them to indict. If you are a target of a grand jury investigation, you should assume that you will be indicted on criminal charges. With that in mind, your goal in appearing before the grand jury should be to not say anything that could hurt you later and to get your side of the story on the record.
To accomplish that goal it is extremely important that you retain an attorney who has experience with federal criminal law. The attorney knows what questions that you are likely to be asked during the grand jury investigation and can help you to prepare for them. That will make it less likely that you will say something that might hurt you later during a criminal trial.
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