FAQ: What is the difference between the roles of a trial jury and a grand jury?

A trial jury makes the final determination as to the guilt of a defendant in a criminal case. In New York and federal criminal cases, the jurors must vote unanimously on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In both systems, the jurors must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt in order to return a guilty verdict. The judge conducts the proceedings and makes rulings of law. Criminal trials are usually open to the public and both the defense attorney and prosecution participate, but jury deliberations are private.

A grand jury proceeding, on the other hand, is a required step before a trial comes into play. A grand jury is considered an “investigative body” and their job is to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crimes he has been accused of. This is a much lower burden than for a trial jury because a grand jury does not decide the person’s guilt. If the answer is yes, the grand jury will return what is called an “indictment” or “true bill,” and the case will proceed toward the trial stage.

In the New York and federal system, an indictment does not require a unanimous vote, but a vote from a minimum number of grand jurors, which is usually more than a majority of the grand jurors present. It is a private proceeding that is not open to the public. Aside from the grand jurors and witnesses, generally only the prosecutor is permitted inside the room and conducts the proceedings, but deliberations by the grand jury are private.

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