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From the bench: What is a grand jury?

You may be called to serve on one of two types of juries: a petit (trial jury) or a grand jury. Most people understand the purpose of a trial jury, but few have ever served on a grand jury. The purpose of a grand jury is very different.

The prosecutor can request that a grand jury be convened to hear any type of case. A grand jury has the authority " inquire as to public offenses committed or triable in the county..." (Minnesota Statute 628.41)

If the grand jury determines that a person should be charged with a crime or crimes, the charging document is called an indictment. Only a grand jury can indict someone for a first degree murder offense.

In Greater Minnesota, grand juries are rarely convened. In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, grand juries are frequently in session.

Grand jury members are summoned annually from the same databases as petit jurors. A grand jury must have at least 16 members but not more than 23 members.

A district court judge instructs the grand jury on its duties and appoints a foreperson to lead the grand jury. The only persons permitted in the grand jury room are the grand jurors, the prosecutors, the witness under examination, "qualified interpreters for witnesses disabled in communication, or for jurors with a sensory disability" and a court reporter. (Rule 18.03, Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure)

A designated peace officer may also be present as approved by the court for security purposes. A witness may have his or her attorney present while he or she testifies, but the attorney cannot participate in the proceedings, except to advise his or her client. Unlike trial jurors, grand jurors may ask witnesses questions.

An indictment may issue only if at least 12 of the jurors agree. The grand jury does not have to return an indictment, which is called a "no bill," meaning that no one is charged with a criminal offense.

As with a jury trial, a verbatim record is kept of all grand jury proceedings, except for deliberations and voting. However, unlike a jury trial, the grand jury record is not public.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, and disclosures are limited to the prosecutor and the defense if an indictment is returned.

An indictment is secret until the defendant is arraigned on the charge(s). Violation of the secrecy of the grand jury is a criminal offense.

If you are summoned to serve as a grand juror, you will participate in a unique process that few citizens ever experience.

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Ann Carrott is a Seventh District Court Judge chambered in Douglas County.