Grand Juries in Georgia: Regular vs. Special Purpose

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What is a Grand Jury?

In the United States, the Fifth Amendment outlines the need for a grand jury in serious criminal cases. This Constitutional mandate is interpreted and applied differently across states, resulting in a variety of grand jury formats and functions. Specifically in Georgia, the law delineates two categories of grand juries: the commonly encountered regular grand jury and the more targeted special purpose grand jury.

Composition and Operation of Standard Grand Juries

A typical grand jury in Georgia is formed with 16 to 23 members, selected from a pool of qualified individuals within the county. Grand juries sit for a predetermined duration (called a “term of Court” in Georgia). In Fulton County, the term is 2 months. During the term, these jurors assemble to carry out their responsibilities, which are twofold.

What is a Grand Jury Investigation?

A regular grand jury in Georgia engages in the criminal indictment process. Echoing the federal requirement, Georgia mandates grand jury indictments for the majority of felony cases. The Grand jury is to examine the evidence presented by the state to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to proceed with a criminal charge. In instances where at least 12 jurors agree on the existence of probable cause, an indictment, known as a “true bill,” is issued (Grand juries don’t need to be unanimous in order to issue an indictment). The defense is not allowed before the Grand jury and so the Grand jury solely receives its information from the State. This has the practical effect of nearly guaranteeing that every case the State presents will be indicted…hence the phrase “indict a ham sandwich.” 

Civil Oversight: The Lesser-Known Role

Besides their criminal indictment function, grand juries in Georgia also perform a vital civil oversight role. As stated in O.C.G.A. § 15-12-71, they are tasked with the periodic inspection of government operations and facilities. Some inspections are obligatory, like the annual review of county jails, while others are at the jury’s discretion. The outcome of these inspections is often a “general presentment,” a report summarizing the grand jury’s findings and observations.

What is a Special Purpose Grand Jury?

Focused Investigations of Special Purpose Grand Juries

Special purpose grand juries are distinguished primarily by their specific investigative focus. Unlike regular grand juries that primarily make charging decisions on criminal cases , special purpose grand juries delve deeply into a specific issues, such as public corruption, facilitating a more exhaustive investigation.

In contrast to the “term of court” of regular grand juries, special purpose grand juries in Georgia operate over a variable duration, which allows them to conduct more complex and detailed investigations without time constraints.

Special Purpose Grand Juries cannot formally indict

Although they cannot formally indict (issue a “true bill“), special purpose grand juries hold the authority to generate comprehensive public reports. These reports can include recommendations for criminal indictments, which the district attorney may pursue through a regular grand jury. Additionally, these juries can propose reforms, ethical guidelines, and suggest disciplinary actions for non-criminal misconduct, especially involving public officials.

The ability of special purpose grand juries to issue reports, especially those that criticize public officials for negligence or incompetence, is anchored in Georgia’s statutes. This function, however, is bound by the confines of the investigation and the principles of due process.

Special purpose grand juries are not unique to Georgia. Across the United States many states have legislation allowing for the establishment of similar bodies, each with its own set of rules and objectives. For instance, some states, contrary to Georgia’s practice, keep the reports of such juries confidential unless a court order dictates otherwise.

What is the Special Purpose Grand jury’s impact?

While the notion of special purpose grand juries is not exclusive to Georgia, the state’s application of this judicial tool is noteworthy. These juries significantly contribute to addressing intricate legal challenges and promoting transparency and responsibility in public service.

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