What's a grand jury indictment?

Grand juries are independent groups of citizens charged with reviewing evidence to determine if there'sprobable cause to proceed with an indictment on criminal charges.Federal criminal prosecutions require a grand jury to find probable cause to return an indictment. About half the 50 states use grand jury indictments in criminal prosecutions.

Grand juries hear cases brought by State's Attorneys, and only the evidence and witnesses presented by the State's Attorney are considered. A grand jury's job is basically to hear the case the State's Attorney has put together and decide whether or not it should proceed. Rarely do they decline to issue the indictments requested [source: American Bar Association].

What Does a State's Attorney Do?

Criminal prosecutions are the chief duty of most State's Attorney offices. In many states, such as Michigan, criminal prosecutions follow a predetermined series of steps [source: Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan].

First, police file a warrant or charging request with the State's Attorney following an investigation. Attorneys review the request and may decide to issue a warrant, which allows the police to arrest the suspect. An arraignment in court follows, at which the suspect is formally charged with a crime and enters a plea. Depending on the type and severity of a crime, there can be several pretrial hearings. At some point during these hearings, a plea bargain may be offered to induce the suspect to enter a guilty plea.

Before a trial takes place, the process of discovery takes place, at which the State's Attorney and the defense attorney share information they intend to introduce as evidence at trial. This can include physical or written depositions of witnesses to find out what they know, written questions called interrogatories which the other side must complete, and review of documents and evidence in the case [source: American Bar Association].

A trial may take place, and the State's Attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect committed the crime. Either a judge or a jury may decide the verdict on how well the State's Attorney proved the case. During the trial, the State's Attorney may make opening and closing statements, offer evidence, question witnesses and challenge the defense attorney's legal actions.

If the defendant is found guilty, the State's Attorney recommends a sentence for the judge to determine and may have to argue the case again in an appeal to a higher court.

Civil duties are also a large part of the State's Attorney's responsibilities. State's Attorneys may represent local elected officials, as the Hennepin County Attorney does in Minnesota [source: Hennepin County Attorney]. The County Attorney there advises the county board of commissioners and the county administrator, represents the county in legal actions, and negotiates on behalf of the county in employment and other contract situations.

The State's Attorney can be the debt collector for local government, especially when it comes to property taxes and bankruptcy issues.The office also offers legal advice and representation for local government human service agencies when it comes to child protection and welfare, child support, and adult services, including civil commitment hearings, welfare assistance and vulnerable adult issues.

Next, we'll learn more about the prosecutors charged with enforcing the law and carrying out the directions of the State's Attorney.