What is a Criminal Indictment?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on June 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What is an indictment, and how does the indictment process go? News about John Edwards' recent indictment over allegations that he misused campaign funds is splashed all over the headlines.

But, what is it that leads up to a criminal indictment in the first place?

The criminal indictment process begins with a grand jury. A grand jury is one type of jury that is brought in to analyze some of the evidence brought by the prosecution to determine if the case should be brought to trial.

Grand juries are different than traditional juries because the grand jury proceedings are usually sealed. Regular trials are generally open to the public. And, the rules of evidence are a lot more flexible in grand jury proceedings, allowing the prosecution to bring in evidence that they may not be able to bring at trial. Witnesses may also testify during a grand jury hearing.

The defense, including both the defendant and his attorney, is usually not present during grand jury proceedings. If the defendant is called, he can invoke the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

When the grand jury convenes, they will usually make a decision based on the evidence they have been presented with. The decision will be whether or not to issue a criminal indictment against the accused.

If the criminal indictment is issued, this means that the grand jury believed that there is enough evidence against the defendant that a trial is warranted.

Criminal indictments are also used to inform defendants about the charges that they will be facing at trial, allowing them to prepare their defense.

So, what is an indictment? It's basically a criminal charge, issued after a grand jury's determination. And, the indictment process is only the beginning of any criminal case - the full-fledged trial is the next step.

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