What is a Silent Indictment?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2020
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A silent indictment is sometimes a part of the pre-trial process in felony cases. When a silent indictment occurs, a Grand Jury indicts an individual before he or she has been arrested. After the silent indictment takes place, an arrest warrant is issued and the person is brought to court to answer the charges in a process called arraignment. A silent indictment is not unusual, and may be pursued for a variety of reasons by the prosecution.

An indictment is different than a complaint against the defendant because an indictment is reached by a Grand Jury of 16-23 people after hearing sworn testimony. A complaint is usually filed with law enforcement for follow up. The indictment lists the felony charges against the accused for the Superior Court. In the case of a silent indictment, the accused is not aware that Grand Jury proceedings have occurred until he or she is presented with the arrest warrant.


An indictment is not a conviction. It is merely a formal list of charges that the Grand Jury has agreed upon after hearing sworn testimony. The prosecutor in the case presents witnesses to the Grand Jury in the hopes that the testimony of the witnesses will lead to an indictment. The witnesses are sworn in on the stand, and will face charges of perjury if they lie, just as they would in a trial situation. The defendant may testify, or supply witnesses in his or her defense with permission.

In most felony cases, the prosecution has up to six months to get an indictment, except in the case of homicide, where there is no statute of limitations. As a result, the prosecution may choose to let an individual go while evidence is gathered for a stronger case. In this instance, a silent indictment is commonly used. A silent indictment also bypasses the criminal court altogether. This saves the legal system time and money, as serious felonies must be tried in front of the Superior Court.

After the silent indictment, the accused is brought before the Superior Court to answer the charges. Usually the case goes to trial, following a set series of trial proceedings. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury passes judgment on the accused, determining whether or not he or she is guilty of the charges in the indictment. During the trial phase, the prosecution and the defense may both present evidence to support their individual cases, while the jury is expected to weigh this evidence.

The term “silent indictment” is also sometimes used as a metaphor. When used in a metaphorical sense, the phrase usually refers to something which causes feelings of guilt. For example, a student might call a long unopened textbook a silent indictment, suggesting that the presence of the book charges the student with not completing his or her schoolwork.


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