What is the Role of the Grand Jury?

In North Carolina, there are more than 400 criminal laws codified in statues.  Criminal cases are heard in both District and Superior Courts.  The most serious criminal cases are felonies and those are the cases that most often times result in a possible prison sentence of at least 12 months (one year) or more.  These more serious crimes are usually almost always heard in Superior Court.  Felony offenses include, among others, breaking and entering, assaults, sale or deliver of controlled substances, forgery, rape, murder, embezzlement, obtaining property by false pretenses, kidnapping, child molestation, involuntary manslaughter and arson.

If a felony case is unable to be resolved in District Court or is not transferred to Superior Court via a bill of information, then jurisdiction in the case will be transferred to Superior Court through the prosecutor submitting the case to the grand jury to return a true bill of indictment.  The function of the grand jury is primarily to act upon bills of indictment the District Attorney submits.   A bill of indictment is simply a written accusation charging a person with the commission of one or more criminal offenses.  

The formation and importance of the grand jury system dates back approximately 800 years.  According to the State of North Carolina “Handbook for Grand Jurors”:

The grand jury has a long and honorable tradition.  It was recognized in the Magna Carta, the first English constitutional document, which King John granted in 1215, at the demand of his subjects.  The first English grand jury consisted of twelve men selected from the knights or other freemen.  Those grand jurors were summoned to inquire into crimes alleged to have been committed in their local community.  Thus, originally, they functioned as accusers or witnesses rather than as important fact finders.

Over many years, grand jury proceedings became secret, and the grand jury became independent of the crown.  As a result, a grand jury was expected to vote for or against an indictment as it deemed proper, without regard to the recommendations of the judge, prosecutor, or any other person.  This independence of actions was achieved only after a long struggle over many years.

When the English colonist came to America, they brought with them many institutions of the English legal system, including the grand jury.  The grand jury as an institution was so firmly established in the traditions of our forebears that they included it in the Bill of Rights.  The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides in part, “[no] person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless a presentment or indictment of a grand jury.”  Article 1, Section 22 of North Carolina’s constitution provides that “Except for misdemeanors initiated in the District Court Division, no person shall answer to any criminal charge but by indictment, presentment, or impeachment.  But any person,…may…waive indictment in noncapital cases.”

Drennan, James C. (1988).  The Institute of Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Handbook for Grand Jurors.  State of North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

The grand jury consists of a neutral, independent group of citizens that review cases the State seeks to bring to court.  Members are chosen from a master jury list that is composed of names drawn from the voter and drivers license list.  In North Carolina, a grand jury consists of not less than 12 nor more than 18 persons, impaneled by a Superior Court and constituting a part of such court.  N.C.G.S. 15A-621.  Normally, nine (9) grand jurors are drawn each January, and nine (9) more are chosen in July, so that there are always 18 grand jurors serving at any one time.  Service on the grand jury lasts approximately twelve (12) months.  The North Carolina General Statues provide that the secrecy of all grand jury proceedings is imperative.  N.C.G.S. 15A-623(e).  The grand jury is led by a foreperson who is selected each six months and North Carolina courts require that the grand jury foreperson be selected in a racially and also a gender-neutral basis.  State v. Cofield, 320 N.C. 297 (1987).

The District Attorney will prepare the bills of indictment and include upon each bill the names of the witnesses needed to be heard on behalf of the State.  The grand jury is not tasked with determining guilt or innocence of the crime charged, that is the responsibility of a trial jury.  The grand jury reviews evidence on behalf of the State and if at least twelve (12) of the grand jurors find that the crime named in the bill of indictment has probably been committed and that there is “probable cause” to believe that the defendant committed the crime, the grand jury returns a “true bill of indictment.”  If the grand jury fails to find probable cause, it returns the indictment as not being a true bill.  N.C.G.S. 15A-627.

Probable cause is a reasonable suspicion supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to warrant a cautious person to believe that the person accused is guilty of the offense charged.  To pass on a bill of indictment, only two questions need to be answered.  First, was a crime probably committed, and second, did the defendant probably commit the crime?  When all of the evidence is heard on a bill of indictment, the foreman will preside over a discussion in that case.  During the deliberations and voting of the grand jury, only the grand jurors may be present in the grand jury room.  Members of the grand jury are instructed to pay close attention to the testimony of witnesses, listen to the evidence and the opinions of their fellow jurors, to be absolutely fair and not to try the case in the grand jury room.