In around half of all states, the grand jury is still used. One of those states is Texas, where it is covered under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 20. Adam M Smith has always been interested in the grand jury, and particularly on why they are still used in some places.
Adam M Smith on the Grand Jury
In Texas, anyone facing some misdemeanors, “otherwise infamous crimes”, and felony offenses, will have their case heard by men/women of the grand jury, regardless of which district they are from. The grand jury will determine whether or not someone should be indicted. If so, then legal proceedings commence, which does not always mean a trial. Sometimes, a grand jury will determine it is a “no-bill”, which means charges will not be pursued. Last June, one case that could have caused some political embarrassment was determined “no-bill”, saving the prosecution a significant headache. And this is precisely why some people do not like the grand jury.
The proceedings of the grand jury are secret. Certain individuals are present at different times. The accused and defense attorney are never present, unless they are called in as a witness. In Texas, under Article 20.011, the only people allowed in the grand jury room are:
- The grand jurors themselves.
- Court-appointed bailiffs.
- The state attorney, which is the Attorney General in most cases.
- Any witnesses.
- Interpreters if they have been requested.
During deliberations, only the grand jurors can be present. Records are maintained, but they are sealed and rarely visible to the public. The state attorney, meanwhile, can always see the grand jury to ask them to consider indictment.
Under Article 20.04, the state attorney can also call any witnesses and interview them. They are the only one in the entire proceedings who are allowed to do this. Additionally, nobody is allowed to address the grand jury either, not even the accused.
Under Article 20.15, people who refuse to testify may be compelled to change their mind through fines of no more than $500, or being placed in jail until they are ready to testify. This is something that few people understand, since it means that people can be jailed for exercising their right to remain silent. Yet, the grand jury is entitled to do this, and they may call witnesses even if those witnesses would incriminate themselves. That said, a witness is allowed to refuse to answer questions. Witnesses are under oath when speaking to the grand jury, and they only receive legal advice outside of the chambers. Indeed, witnesses essentially have Miranda rights in the same way as they would if they were facing arrest.
According to Adam M Smith, the system of grand juries is quite complex and it is easy to see why so many people do not understand why there is a need for them anymore at all. That said, changing systems that have been in place for hundreds of years is often nearly impossible.