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The institution of the grand jury is, for the most part, shrouded in mystery. Although the grand jury indictment is provided for in the Constitution to protect those who come in conflict with the law, very few citizens know much about its history, purposes, or practices. Much of this "mysteriousness" is due to the very nature of the institution — a group of citizens formed as an arm of the court, holding secret hearings where the accused does not automatically have the right to be present. Its major function is to accuse individuals of a crime where there is probable cause and, by refusing to indict, to protect against false accusation. Seldom is there a glimpse into its activities since members are sworn to secrecy and, under most circumstances, the finished product of their labor, the indictment or refusal to indict, gets little public exposure.

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger. …” In 1884, in the case of Hurtado v. California, the Supreme Court held that this constitutional provision applied only to the federal government. States were thus free to use or not to use the grand jury indictment process in charging crimes. Today, however, most states east of the Mississippi have provisions in their state constitutions or statutes which require a grand jury indictment for felony cases whereas in almost all states west of the Mississippi, the prosecutor may select either an information or a grand jury indictment for felony cases. Both the indictment and the information are written accusations which are filed with the appropriate court. In "grand jury states" the indictment is usually prepared by the prosecutor, presented to the grand jury, and the panel returns a true bill or a no true bill. Informations, on the other hand, are prepared by the prosecutor and filed with the court without the intervention of a grand jury.

Since the late 1960s the grand jury system has become the target of much criticism.


Anne Feder Lee is currently visiting Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of Cincinnati. B.A. University of California, Berkeley, 1966; M.A. University of Essex, England,, 1970; Ph.D. Miami University, Ohio, 1977.

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