The grand jury has a long history, as it was one of the rights recognized by England’s King John in the Magna Carta in 1215.
It was created as a safeguard against the power of the king. The Sheriff of Nottingham, for example, could not lock up Robin Hood for robbery without the crown prosecutor presenting evidence to a grand jury and that body voting an indictment.
It still serves as a restraint on governmental power. New York state has a constitutional guarantee that a person cannot be held for trial on a felony unless a group of citizens hears evidence and decides that there is “reasonable cause to believe” that the defendant committed the crime.
This is to ensure that serious charges are based on evidence and are not arbitrary or due to favoritism or bias.
CHOSEN AT RANDOM
A grand jury is larger than the trial, or petit jury; it is required to have at least 16 members but no more than 23.
Grand jurors are selected at random by the jury commissioner from various lists, including those for driver’s licenses and voter registrations. There is no questioning process like there is before a trial juror is seated. A grand jury sits for a defined period of time, which could be months, and hears evidence on whether there is reasonable cause to indict in many cases during that period.
This body has two important functions: The first is to hear evidence presented by the district attorney’s office and determine whether it is sufficient to charge the defendant with one or more felonies.
After hearing the evidence, if at least 12 grand jurors find that there is “reasonable cause,” an indictment is filed with the court. This is the document bearing the formal charge, and it commences the court process.