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What is a Federal Grand Jury?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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A federal grand jury is a panel of United States citizens that has the job of deciding whether or not a person should be indicted, or formally charged, for committing a crime. These panels may also investigate criminal activity, deciding whether or not an individual or group of individuals should be charged. Federal grand juries are used to indict people for cases in United States federal courts. They are reserved for very serious crimes called felonies, especially those for which a defendant could receive the death penalty.

There are at least 16, but not more than 23 people on a federal grand jury panel. These individuals are ordinary citizens who are called to serve on the jury. Sometimes federal grand jurors are excused from serving on the panel because of illness or other reasons. Since a grand jury cannot convene with fewer than 16 jurors, this may mean replacing excused jurors with alternates.

Federal grand juries also have officers who are appointed by a federal court. One officer is called a foreperson and is responsible for performing certain administrative tasks, helping to oversee the jury, and swearing in people who will testify in the case. The second officer is a deputy foreperson. The deputy foreperson fills in to perform the foreperson's duties if he is absent or otherwise unable to serve. Sometimes federal grand juries also have a secretary who is appointed by the court and keeps track of juror attendance and votes.

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The work of a federal grand jury, including examining physical evidence, is done in private. A panel of jurors meets in a private grand jury room within a federal courthouse. These rooms are not open to the public, even when the grand jury hears the testimony of witnesses in the case.

A grand jury witness’s lawyer is not allowed inside the grand jury room. The constitution does not provide the right to a lawyer in such cases because the person in question hasn’t been indicted or charged yet. The accused and other witnesses can confer with their attorneys outside of the jury room, however.

In most cases, a regular federal grand jury serves for about 18 months. If necessary, a federal court may extend the jury’s term to a total of 24 months. A special grand jury starts with an 18-month term as well, but may be required to serve for up to 18 additional months.

Other countries may use grand juries in their national court systems, but they are rare outside of the United States. Within the United States, there are also state grand juries that operate in accordance with the laws of the particular state. Grand juries meet regularly, but how often they meet depends on the particular jurisdiction’s laws.

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