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What Is a Criminal Indictment?

All of us have read newspaper headlines about a person being indicted for a criminal offense. What exactly is an indictment, and what does it do? An indictment is a formal accusation of a crime. While today there are ways to accuse someone of committing a crime other than through an indictment, indictments are still used in the United States, especially for federal crimes. They are used less frequently in the state court system. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that a person cannot be charged with a capital or otherwise infamous crime other than by presentment or indictment by a grand jury. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment does not apply to state courts. Therefore the use of grand juries is optional for state courts.

Prosectuor Required to Present the Case to Grand Jury

A prosecutor is required to present the case to a grand jury of 16 to 23 members that decides whether there is enough evidence to charge the accused with a crime. Twelve members must believe that the evidence is sufficient. Since 1970, federal prosecutors can also present evidence to a special grand jury to investigate whether organized crime is occurring in a jurisdiction. Grand jurors often ask questions of witnesses directly during grand jury proceedings. This is different than a trial. Another difference between grand jury proceedings and a trial is that the accused's criminal defense attorney is not present to question witnesses. Persons accused of crimes rarely testify before grand juries but may request the opportunity to do so. The decision of whether to allow this is up to the prosecuting attorney.

Grand Juries Sit Longer Than Regular Juries

Grand juries sit for much longer than regular juries. In federal court, a prosecutor swears in grand juries for 18 months at a time. However, they rarely sit that long or for more than one day per week. If a jury believes that the evidence is sufficient for trial, they will vote to "return a true bill" and return the indictment to the prosecutor, which allows him or her to proceed with the criminal case. If the grand jury votes to "return a no bill," they have decided not to return the indictment and no criminal case results.