September 27, 2016

The process and workings of a grand jury

The grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson on Nov. 24.

Although grand juries have been in the news recently, William Hall said some people do not know what a grand jury does. Hall is an adjunct political science professor and former senior-level federal mediator for the United States Department of Justice in the Community Relations Service Division.

“A lot of people don’t understand. They hear jury, they think, ‘Well they are going to make a decision,’” Hall said. “ The Grand Jury makes an assessment of the validity and the sufficiency of the evidence.”

In this case, a St. Louis County Grand Jury presided over the decision. In St. Louis County, a grand jury is made up of 12 people who meet whenever evidence needs to be reviewed. During the process, witnesses can give their testimonials, the Prosecuting Attorney, in this case Robert McCulloch, can present evidence brought to the attention of his office and both the Prosecuting Attorney and the jurors can ask questions in response to the offerings.

This process in not led by a judge, like other court proceedings, it is a free process where the jury can ask questions, while the prosecuting attorney brings forth evidence and witnesses. There is no set time frame for a grand jury, and in this case they deliberated from August, when the shooting occurred, until Nov. 24. 

According to the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney website, grand juries meet every Wednesday during their term, but they can meet whenever further evidence needs reviewing. This is documented and recorded, but is rarely released.

However, McCulloch has released transcripts and audio recordings of the grand jury proceedings to media outlets throughout the country. Hall said that is extremely rare. McCulloch made that statement on Sept. 17, and Hall said it could have affected who came forward to give testimony during the case.

“There could be some implications,” Hall said. “I don’t know for sure, but if potential witnesses now learn that despite testifying in secrecy down the road their testimonies are going to be made public, might that have a dampening affect on people when they come forward to volunteer.”

When making their final decision, the grand jury has to come to a majority — normally two-thirds of three-fourths according to Hall – on whether or not there is enough evidence to create a probable cause that a crime has been committed and that the accused committed it.

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