How grand juries work in Missouri

grand-juryA step-by-step look as the nation awaits a grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown

Since August 9, our communities, the nation and even the world’s attention has been focused on what will happen next in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s shooting and killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18 year-old.

The case is now before a grand jury, which will decide whether or not Wilson will face criminal charges. As we wait to learn of the grand jury’s decision, it’s helpful to understand how the process works. This is especially true as we don’t have a front row seat to what is taking place in the grand jury room. That’s because grand jury proceedings are closed to the public and press, and jurors and witnesses are not allowed to share information about what happens in the grand jury.

A grand jury in Missouri is convened on order of a circuit judge. It consists of 12 people who usually serve three to six months. Grand juries sit continually for the most part in metropolitan circuits, but are called less frequently in other circuits.

Basic grand jury procedures:

  • Hearings are secret and jurors are sworn not to reveal information about events taking place in the grand jury room.
  • Evidence to determine whether there is probable cause to prosecute is presented by the prosecuting or circuit attorney, who also acts as advisor, to the jury.
  • Possible defendants or their attorneys are not allowed to be present when testimony is given concerning them; however, they may present their own defense to the grand jury if the prosecuting or circuit attorney permits.
  • Witnesses are sworn to secrecy after testifying, though they may comment if they desire before they testify.
  • Only grand jurors may be present when deliberations are held and when votes are taken.

A grand jury has the important responsibility of determining whether or not there is probable cause to prosecute in a criminal case. This is known as an Indictment:

  • A “true bill” is voted when probable cause is found to prosecute; a “no true bill” is returned if probable cause is not found.
  • A vote of nine jurors is sufficient to return the Indictment.
  • The Indictment, which must contain the same information as the Information*, is signed by the grand jury foreman and the prosecuting or circuit attorney and is then presented in open court to the circuit judge.

An indictment is not a finding of guilt.

If a grand jury returns an Indictment, then the judge orders an arrest warrant issued for the defendant, if the defendant is not already in custody, and sets bail. Indictments sometimes are kept secret until the defendant is in custody.

This information on the grand jury process in Missouri is from the News Reporters’ Handbook published by the Missouri Press-Bar Commission. To find a step-by-step guide on how criminal cases in Missouri work, check out the Criminal Case section of the handbook. The commission is a group of media professionals, lawyers and judges that work to develop a variety of projects and educational programs to promote a better informed citizenry and further strengthen service to the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States throughout Missouri.

*A person may be charged with a crime by either of two pleadings – Information or Indictment. Either pleading must contain certain facts:

  1. Defendant’s proper name.
  2. Essential facts of the offense alleged.
  3. Name and degree of offense alleged.
  4. Names of all witnesses to be called by the State at trial.
  5. Time and place of offense charged stated as definitely as possible.
  6. Cite sections of statutes alleged to have been violated and the section of the statutes which fix the penalty or punishment.

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