Legalese 101: What exactly is a Grand Jury?

By Jason Beahm on February 23, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

Today our topic is a phrase you hear a lot, though many people don't really understand what it is all about: the grand jury system. A grand jury is a type of jury that analyzes the evidence in a case brought by the prosecution and determines whether the evidence is substantial enough to go to trial.

A grand jury listens to the prosecution's side of the case without the presence of the defense and determines whether or not to issue an indictment. An indictment is a formal charge that the defendant has committed a crime.

As one might expect, the grand jury exists with a bit of controversy. Most common law countries abolished the grand jury system long ago. The problem, the argument goes, is that it is too easy to obtain an indictment. Former New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler, once famously said that a district attorney can "by and large" get a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich." To our knowledge no one has actually successfully indicted a ham sandwich, although I could certainly see that making for a great YouTube video.

After all, a ham sandwich can look awfully guilty, just sitting there on a plate all quiet like, not saying a word to anyone.

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