Grand jury

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In the common law, a grand jury is a type of jury that determines whether there is enough evidence for a trial. Grand juries carry out this duty by examining evidence and issuing indictments, or by investigating alleged crimes and issuing presentments. A grand jury is traditionally larger than and distinguishable from a petit jury, which is used during a trial.



The first instance of a grand jury can be traced back to the Assize of Clarendon, an 1166 act of Henry II of England.[1] In fact, Henry's chief effect on the development of the English monarchy was to increase the jurisdiction of the royal courts at the expense of the feudal courts. Itinerant justices on regular circuits were sent out once each year to enforce the "King's Peace." To make this system of royal criminal justice more effective, Henry employed the method of inquest used by William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book. In each shire a body of important men was sworn (jure) to report to the sheriff all crimes committed since the last session of the circuit court. Thus originated the modern grand jury that presents information for an indictment.[2] The grand jury was later recognized by King John in Magna Carta in 1215 on demand of the nobility.[3]

In the early decades of the United States grand juries played a major role in public matters. During that period counties followed the traditional practice of requiring all decisions be made by at least twelve of the grand jurors, (e.g., for a twenty-three-person grand jury, twelve people would constitute a bare majority). Any citizen could bring a matter before a grand jury directly, from a public work that needed repair, to the delinquent conduct of a public official, to a complaint of a crime, and grand juries could conduct their own investigations. In that era most criminal prosecutions were conducted by private parties, either a law enforcement officer, a lawyer hired by a crime victim or his family, or even by laymen, who could bring a bill of indictment to the grand jury; if the grand jury found there was sufficient evidence for a trial, that the act was a crime under law, and that the court had jurisdiction, then by returning the indictment to the complainant, it appointed him to exercise the authority of an attorney general, that is, one having a general power of attorney to represent the state in the case. The grand jury served to screen out incompetent or malicious prosecutions.[4] The advent of official public prosecutors in the later decades of the 19th century largely displaced private prosecutions.[5]

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