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History of the Grand Jury

The grand jury is an investigatory body created for the protection of society and the enforcement of the law. The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I of the California Constitution established grand juries. Grand juries were formed throughout California during the early years of statehood.

The grand jury concept originated in medieval England, during the reign of Henry II (1154 -1189). It is distinctly a development of common law (judge-made law as evolved in England and the United States). Initially, the grand jury both accused and tried suspects, but the functions were later separated. The purpose of establishing the grand jury was to prevent oppressive prosecution by the English crown through a citizens’ hearing prior to actual prosecution.

In the early centuries of the jury system, the jurors passed judgment on the basis of what they themselves knew about a defendant and the case. It was believed that one’s neighbors and associates were the most competent to render a fair verdict. However, if they were unfriendly or bore a grudge, the verdict could be unjust.

By the end of the 17th century the principle that jurors must reach a verdict solely on the basis of evidence was established, and that is the practice today.

The grand jury has been regarded as a sword and a shield — a sword, for it is a potent instrument in the hands of a vigorous prosecutor against crime and subversion, and a shield, because it protects the innocent against trumped up charges or overzealousness on the part of public officials.

Called "grand" because of their size, not their function, grand juries in California have from 12 to 23 members based on the population of the county. The Sacramento County Grand Jury has 19 members. A grand jury works to ensure that the best interests of all citizens of the county are being served by their governmental bodies.

The functions of the grand jury include oversight of county and city governments and special districts to ensure that their duties are being lawfully carried out. In addition, the grand jury reviews and evaluates procedures used by these entities to determine whether or not more efficient and economical methods may be employed.

Working in cooperation with the district attorney, the grand jury conducts investigations of criminal activity. Cases may involve activities of public officials, cases with multiple defendants, cases with special witnesses—such as children, informants or undercover agents—and cases in which the statute of limitations is about to expire.

The grand jury also responds to citizen complaints. Anyone may ask the grand jury to conduct an investigation. The grand jury chooses which complaints merit in-depth investigation. The grand jury cannot investigate disputes between private parties.

Although it was abolished in England in 1933, the grand jury is used in all federal district courts of the United States, as well as in the courts of 22 states, to bring indictments for felonies.

Nineteen states use the information obtained in a sworn statement by the district attorney in the nature of an accusation, instead of the indictment presented by the grand jury.

Seven states occasionally use the grand jury to investigate serious crimes. Grand juries have the authority to conduct independent investigations whenever their consensus dictates such a procedure.

All complaints to the grand jury are confidential, as are all grand jury proceedings. However, the veil of secrecy may be lifted by the court if it feels the interests of justice will be served. Any unauthorized disclosure of grand jury proceedings is, in some jurisdictions, an indictable offense.

In Sacramento County, the Grand Jury selection process begins in January using a candidate pool developed from voter registration and driver’s license records, as well as from a list of interested individuals nominated by Superior Court judges. After a thorough screening process, a blind drawing is held in June of each year and the Grand Jury for the next year is selected. This new Jury begins its year of service on July 1.

1999/2000 Sacramento County Grand Jury - Final Report (Internet Version) June 30, 2000

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