Grand Jury Explained

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There's one question on everyone's mind: Did they deserve to be charged with a crime?  "They" being police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo both responsible for the recent deaths of two unarmed civilians, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  In both cases, grand juries decided no.  Many are questioning that decision making process.  In any legal proceeding, a standard trial is rarely the first step.  Before that, a preliminary hearing or grand jury hearing must take place to decide whether there's probable cause to charge someone with a crime.  The decisions not to charge officer Wilson and officer Panteleo came from a grand jury.

"The prosecutor will want to go to the grand jury when they want to keep something out of the public eye and not make something a public spectacle," said Charles Lukis, a criminal defense attorney in Decatur.

The prosecutor presents physical evidence gathered by investigators and witnesses share what they observed.  In the Michael Brown case, 60 witnesses testified, and Darren Wilson, the man who shot Brown, also gave his account. 

"The whole idea is they're going to be more open and truthful if they're in that secret proceeding," said Jay Scott, Macon County State's Attorney.

A preliminary hearing is much different.

"That's a hearing where essentially the judge would act as the grand jury and decided whether or not there is probably cause for a case to go forward," said Lukis.  "And that would be done in court in pubic."

During a preliminary hearing, a defendant's attorney can see and cross-examine prosecution witnesses.  But grand jurors see and hear only what prosecutors put before them.

"No prosecutor is going to want to put up with that level of public scrutiny or cross examination from a defense attorney before they have to," said Lukis.  "In a grand jury, there's no back and forth.  There's no presentation of both sides of the argument.  The grand jury hears whatever the prosecutor wants them to hear.  The saying about grand juries is that any prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich."

The U.S. Justice Department has decided to conduct a federal civil rights investigation into Garner and Brown's deaths.

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