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Recognizing the Difference Between a Grand Jury and a Jury Trial

Grand juries and trial juries are made up of everyday citizens who are called for jury duty. However, they serve different purposes.

What is a grand jury?
The grand jury is called to assist the prosecution in deciding whether to bring criminal charges against a suspect. There are usually 23 people who make up a grand jury, and the jurors may have jury duty for months at a time. Yet, these jurors may have to work only a few days out of each month.

Grand juries work very closely with the prosecutors, who explain the law to the jurors so they have a better understanding of their roles and the process. These jurors are able to view a majority of the evidence collected and can gather evidence from individuals whom they believe could be beneficial to their decision-making. The environment for grand jury hearings tends to be comfortable and low-stress to allow the jurors flexibility. It’s not uncommon for parties that appear before a grand jury to not have an attorney, and the rules of evidence are not as strict during this process as they would be in an actual criminal trial. Grand jury proceedings are held in confidence to encourage witnesses to speak openly, as well as to protect the alleged suspect if the grand jury decides not to bring charges.

The grand jury’s decision is not the final step in a criminal matter, in practice, it is often one of the first steps. Prosecutors sometimes use a grand jury proceeding as a “test-run” for a potential trial and therefore take a grand jury’s decision seriously.

What is a trial jury (petit jury)?
Trial juries, on the other hand, are usually the final step of a criminal matter (excluding appeals). Here, citizens are tasked with receiving and processing facts of a case in a formal trial. In a criminal trial the jury is made up of twelve members who must decide the matter unanimously. In civil trials the jury may be made up of six or twelve people, but under certain circumstances, unanimity is not required to arrive at a verdict. Once selected for trial, a juror will have to be present every day of the trial, which could last days, several weeks or sometimes months.

Trial procedures are extremely strict and controlled by the presiding judge and the applicable procedural and evidentiary rules. Unlike a grand jury, a trial jury has no say in what evidence they are allowed to see as the evidence introduced is chosen by the attorneys for each side. A trial jury’s decision is final. Although a decision may be appealed, a trial jury’s determination will be given deference throughout the appeal process.

To discover more about the difference between serving on a jury trial versus a grand jury, or for questions as it relates to your individual circumstance, contact the attorneys at Alperstein & Diener.