Grand Juries vs. Petit Juries: An Overview

November 3rd, 2016 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense, Understanding Texas Law

Every Houston resident has the right to a “trial by jury” when charged with a criminal offense. But there are two different kinds of juries. What we normally think of as a jury–12 people sitting at trial, hearing evidence, and reaching a verdict–is actually known as a “petit jury.” There is also a separate body called a “grand jury” that plays a critical role in the Texas criminal justice system.

What Is a Grand Jury?

The grand jury is something of a relic inherited from the courts of England and Wales (which actually abolished grand juries in the 1940s). Unlike a petit jury that is charged with hearing a specific case, a grand jury in Texas is authorized to “review criminal complaints and decide if there is sufficient evidence to issue an indictment.” The grand jury is essentially a tool used by prosecutors in Harris County, and throughout Texas, to help determine who should be brought to trial before a petit jury.

Since the grand jury’s function is to charge, rather than convict, the standard of proof is also different. A petit jury may only convict an accused defendant if the state proves every element of the criminal charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In contrast, a grand jury need only find that there is “probable cause” to accuse a person of having committed a crime. This is the same standard police officers must use before arresting someone.

What Are Your Rights Before a Grand Jury?

Before trial, a defendant and his or her Galveston criminal defense attorney have the right to question potential members of the petit jury and to ask the trial judge to dismiss any juror who may be biased. An accused person has no similar rights with respect to a grand jury. In fact, a potential defendant may be questioned by the grand jury without the assistance of counsel. Under Texas law, the accused and their attorney may address the grand jury–or question other witnesses before it–only with the permission of the prosecutor. The prosecutor essentially runs the grand jury and has significant influence over whether an accused person is indicted. But at trial, the judge has final authority over the petit jury.

Protecting the Rights of League City Residents

If you even suspect that a grand jury may be investigating you, it is important that you retain an experienced criminal defense attorney to advise and help prepare you for the possibility of an indictment. And in the event you are formally charged, a criminal defense attorney can help ensure the petit jury that tries your case is fair and impartial. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.

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