Indictment… The very sound of the word causes a sinking feeling in the soul of anyone hearing it…especially if the word is being applied to that person! But how bad is an indictment, really? What precisely is it and how does it affect someone who has been accused of a potential felony crime? This article is going to answer “what does indictment mean” and all those other those gritty questions for you, so you don’t lose anymore sleep!
What Does Indictment Mean
For a clear definition, let’s skip the Merriam-Webster on this one and get the straight dope from Law.com:
“a charge of a felony (serious crime) voted by a Grand Jury based upon a proposed charge, witnesses’ testimony and other evidence presented by the public prosecutor (District Attorney).”
What’s a Grand Jury?
Alright, indictment is a charge of a crime. A bad crime. But what’s all this about a “Grand Jury?” Sounds like something you don’t want to face, but don’t worry. You never will.
Why won’t you? Let’s define grand jury before we move on. A grand jury is a private group (between 16 – 23 citizens, sworn in as a jury) whose solemn function is to determine whether or not there is “probable cause to prosecute someone for a felony crime.” In other words, to “indict” the person or not. And the key word here is private.
Their meetings aren’t public and the accused doesn’t have to face them. A grand jury is not there to decide innocence or guilt of an accused part. In fact, there’s not even a judge present, and they don’t follow the standard courtroom rules regarding evidence. Again, their reason for existence is to decide whether a person is to be charged (indicted) or not.
Make sense so far? Outstanding! Then let’s keep rolling…
The Role of the District Attorney
Actually—let’s look at the job of the assigned District Attorney (DA), also known as the prosecutor in this situation (I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you what a DA is, but…). He or she is there to demonstrate to the grand jury, via the revelation of pertinent facts, that the alleged perpetrator of the alleged crime is probably the person who did it.
Now the DA doesn’t have to, nor want to, show all their cards; they will only offer up as much evidence as is needed in order to sway the grand jury to indict you, without giving away all that they know. You’ve likely seen enough court television to understand that’s how their strategy works.
In some cases they hold back their most damning evidence in order to play it out in court…where it really matters and where the accused stands to lose the most. That happens after the felony indictment.
What are Preliminary Hearings?
Typically a grand jury is used for federal crime proceedings, but not always in state crimes. You heard that right! Some states don’t want to make use of a grand jury. Instead they prefer to employ alternative methods, making the decision to go to court or not via a “preliminary hearing.”
But at its core, the basic function of a preliminary hearing is the same as that of a grand jury. The operation is not, though; that’s where the major difference lies. Preliminary hearings are open to the public, whereas a grand jury isn’t. Obviously a very huge difference; most of the time, an accused individual does not wish to have their laundry aired out in the open.
Most of the time, I say. Because there are, of course, exceptions. Public eyes put public pressure on a situation, and this can work either for or against an accused party during this delicate phrase before the indictment. Thus it is another variable in an already dicey game.
Another difference between a grand jury and a preliminary hearing is, the hearings do utilize a judge and lawyers. In fact, it functions a lot like an actual trial, which is why these procedures are often referred to as a “trial before the trial.”
During the preliminary hearing, the judge decides if the government-appointed prosecutor has argued successfully or not to indict the accused. They also determine whether to move forward, or not, with an actual trial. If the person fails to convince the judge, there is no indictment.
What’s a Charging Document?
Okay, we’ve got the gist of what a grand jury does and how a preliminary hearing differs. Another tangent the case could take is, in some cases the prosecutor has an option to go with a grand jury or not. They could potentially just use a “charging document,” provided to the court and containing relevant details for the court to come to a decision regarding indictment.
Information on this document includes such things as: “where, when, and how the defendant allegedly committed the offense.” Of course, if the crime is not very straightforward, or if multiple charges are being sought, the document can in fact be a whole book of papers!
After Indictment and…What About Plea Bargains?
Side Note: You may want to read our article titled; Plea Bargains – The Great American Justice Scam
If the DA does their job and get the indictment on the suspect, then the case will be eligible to go to a court trial and the person will be arraigned (meaning the court will read the charges openly to the defendant). So this is the part to pay close attention to, because now we’ll talk about plea bargaining…
Yes, what about plea bargains? Good deal, bad deal—what’s the story? We have a whole article on that subject (insert link), but in a nutshell, here’s what you ought to understand first.
The well-known fact is that prosecutors are extraordinarily busy and the courts are bogged down, up to their necks in case dockets. Trials are enormously time-consuming and costly, and most of the parties involved are more interested in getting the work off their desk with the least amount of hassle.
Most of the time, no one wants to go through the effort or spend the money to go to lengthy trial, frankly. For this reason, a defendant also has an option to help those overworked DA’s, judges, and juries out by striking a plea bargain…and this is usually exactly what happens.
Note, we are NOT advising for or against plea bargaining. Please consult an attorney prior to making any decisions regarding such deals.
But most cases do get resolved via plea bargaining, because it’s faster and more efficient than the alternative, and often (but not always!) concludes with a more favorable sentencing than a trial might.
Put another way, an indicted defendant may get a lesser sentence if they make a deal, because it saves the court system time and money. So, at least on paper, it appears to be a good choice, and sometimes a defendant is just so tired or baffled that they will do whatever they think is going to get them out of their ordeal as quickly as possible. But this phase is not the time to make a hasty decision.
If the indicted defendant desires to exercise their right to a full trial, then yes, their sentence might be more severe…which, if you think about it, almost seems like a punishment for wanting a trial.
Note, if you were arrested but the indictment is taking a long time, you may have a right to a Personal Recognizance (PR) bond. This just means you’re making a promise to the court that you can be trusted not to flee if released, and that you’ll attend any proceedings that direct you to in the future. Being released on your own recognizance while awaiting potential indictment also means you must not commit any crimes while released…not that anyone should be committing crimes anyhow!
If you are indicted and facing a trial, then educate yourself about all your options. Don’t let others take control of your situation and don’t automatically assume a plea bargain is your best bet.
If you have a chance of winning in a trial, then it is a risk well worth taking. Again, talk to an attorney. Because one never knows for sure what a trial outcome is going to be. That’s why it is so vital to have a professional legal counsel on your side if you’re indicted for a felony offense. You need someone who has been there and done that, and can help you make a decision based on their experience in similar cases. Our site, Help For Felons offers resources to assist you!
No one facing a felony charge wants to be treated like some piece of cargo on a conveyor belt, moving through the cogs of justice without any voice. That’s not the American way! Everybody has the right to a jury trial; the 6th Amendment promises that:
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, including the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to know who your accusers are and the nature of the charges and evidence against you.”
We hope this answers your question “What Does Indictment Mean.”