Grand jury duty: A long-term commitment
A story last month in the Aiken Standard told readers about the process of serving on jury duty. Before a case makes it to trial and deliberation by a jury of 12 people, though, it must first go through a jury of 18 people who determine if a defendant should be brought to trial in the first place.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that felonies be tried only after indictment by a grand jury, which has two functions, according to the S.C. Court Administration handbook.
Indicting and investigating
First, the grand jury is the principal body that decides whether a person charged with a serious crime will be tried. In South Carolina, a person can't be prosecuted for a crime with a punishment of more than 30 days in jail or a fine up to $500 unless the grand jury decides there is reason for an accusation and a trial, based on evidence presented to it by the prosecution.
If a grand jury decides a case should be tried, its finding is called a true bill and the case is put on a criminal trial roster. The grand jury only decides whether or not to make someone stand trial; it does not try cases.
“The indictment is basically the charge that goes before the court,” said Norwood Bodie, an investigator for the Second Circuit Solicitor's Office. “What the grand jury is trying to determine is whether it's likely or not that the person we're alleging committed this crime. If they find that it is likely, they'll true bill it and it goes to the petit jury for trial.”
If the finding is “no bill,” then the case is not presented for trial.
The second function of the grand jury is to perform or make investigations and recommendations related to government affairs in a community that it deems appropriate.
According to the handbook, the grand jury can employ multiple accountants to help them examine and investigate the offices, books, papers and accounts of any public officer of their respective county and fix the amount of compensation or per diem paid.
The qualifications to serve on a grand jury are the same as serving on a petit jury, according to Bodie. If you are selected for jury duty, you will be disqualified if you're not a resident of Aiken County, if you cannot write, read, speak or understand English, or if you have less than a sixth grade education, among other requirements.
The Second Judicial Circuit includes Aiken, Bamberg and Barnwell counties. Each county has its own grand jury, which meets each month before a new term of General Sessions begins.
In order to make a decision about a case, there must be a quorum of at least 12 jurors present, according to Bodie. That doesn't mean that all 18 have to be unanimous.
“Twelve of them have to agree that the person accused of the crime is likely to have done it,” he said.
The number of cases the grand jury hears during each monthly hearing varies. Bodie said it's been as low as 80 cases and as high as 250 cases.
During the hearing, the jurors will hear from every law enforcement agency in the county. Typically, one representative from each agency will go through the cases their agency has that day and present a brief synopsis of a case and the facts.
“They don't last for a long time. It's just a brief synopsis of what happened,” Bodie said.
The hearings are very secretive, and usually only the law enforcement officer presenting cases is allowed in with the jury.
The jurors get a piece of paper with the different cases to take notes on.
“Usually, the officer will step out for a minute and they'll vote on that agency's cases,” Bodie said.
Doing your time
While serving on a petit jury requires a day to a few weeks at the most, if you are selected for grand jury duty, you will serve an entire year.
Selecting a grand jury may sound confusing. Of the 18 jurors on a grand jury for a given year, there are six jurors who served on the grand jury the previous year and are carried over into the new grand jury with the 12 “new people,” so some people end up serving on the grand jury for two years.
“Out of the 12 that were there for the past year, they'll pull six of those names at a random drawing,” Bodie said. “Those six lucky contestants get to come back for a second year, so they're like our senior grand jurors.”
From those six “senior grand jurors,” a jury foreperson is selected who will act as a chairman or spokesman for the jury.
Having 18 people on a jury eases the pain if someone can't be present for a hearing.
“As long as we have 12 of them there, it's not that big of an issue,” Bodie said. “If somebody has a doctor's appointment or is sick, it's usually not a problem. We generally have more than enough to make the minimum number of 12.”
Serving on a grand jury means you are exempt from serving on a circuit court jury in the next four years, if you are selected. Bodie said serving two years on a grand jury usually isn't a problem with jurors.
“Usually, they end up enjoying it,” he said. “I've had two-year grand jurors come back and say, 'Well, if you need somebody to stay over, I'll be happy to.'”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard.