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What is a grand jury and why are their activities secret?

If you've been advised that you're facing federal criminal charges, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis has likely forwarded you and your attorney a copy of your grand jury indictment as part of a discovery packet.

What exactly is a grand jury? What is the grand jury's role in your case?

The existence of grand juries is protected under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Federal prosecutors who are deciding whether to charge someone with a crime will first present the evidence that they've amassed to a grand jury comprised of between 16 and 23 members. If at least 12 of them agree that the individual should be charged with a crime, then an indictment can be issued.

Prosecutors sometimes use grand jury sessions as a way to get uncooperative witnesses to turn over documents necessary for their investigation or in order to get them to testify as well.

Federal grand jury members are selected and screened much like jurors are for any other type of lower court trails. They're identified through public records and are summoned to appear at the courthouse for selection to the jury. Those selected have to meet certain criteria in order to be allowed to take part in the panel.

When evaluating felony criminal cases, the grand jury's role is to make a "probable cause determination." That simply means that the jury must decide whether there is enough evidence to show that a crime actually happened.

One of the reasons many of us don't hear much about grand juries is because their work is required to be kept secret under existing federal law. This means that there's no requirement that a list of subpoenaed individuals or the documents that they're reviewing be published anywhere.

While many cases aren't heard by a grand jury until after an arrest has already been made, in certain high-profile federal cases, grand juries may convene behind the scenes months before a suspect is taken into custody. These cases tend to move quickly to trial once an indictment is brought.

Are you facing questions from a grand jury? Has a grand jury heard evidence in a case against you? Either way, it's wise to talk to an attorney with experiencing handling federal criminal cases.

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