Harrisburg/York Criminal Defense Attorney Answers: “How do Pennsylvania State Grand Jury Proceedings Work?”

In Pennsylvania, an Investigating Grand Jury is an investigative and prosecutorial tool that can be utilized by a county District Attorney or the Attorney General. Upon application, an investigative grand jury can be impaneled to hear and observe testimony and evidence to determine if there is some evidence to support the filing of criminal charges. If the investigative grand jury believes the evidence presented by the prosecution warrants the filing of criminal charges against an individual or individuals, an investigative grand jury presentment will be issued.

Recently, many people have obtained an arms-length awareness of grand jury proceedings, indictments and presentments incident to the grand jury indictment and presentment of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for accusations that he sexually assaulted and abused children he met through his charity, the Second Mile. However, an awareness of the factual findings set forth within this presentment does not ultimately provide true insight into grand jury proceedings from a procedural standpoint. This is important because it is an understanding of the procedures that provides the explanation of how these factual findings are made and why these proceedings are used as a tool by prosecutors.

The grand jury proceeding itself is cloaked in secrecy. To that end, all grand jury participants including, but not limited to, jurors, attorneys, and stenographers, are sworn to secrecy and subject to prosecution for contempt if they disclose information. Additionally, all documents produced and transcripts made reflecting testimony are available only to the Commonwealth, the prosecution, and are not available for public consumption.

As reflected by the limitations on dissemination of records produced and made during a grand jury investigation, the Attorney for the Commonwealth controls the investigation and dissemination of information to the grand jury itself. The Attorney for the Commonwealth controls the witnesses and the testimony they offer to the grand jury in both content and context. Consequently, the grand jury is presented with a one-sided version of the accusations in the light most favorable to the prosecution.

To the point, I was once told by a former federal prosecutor, who regularly handled grand jury proceedings on the federal level, that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.” This is not an indictment on the members of the grand jury who are pulled away from their daily lives to sit for an extended period of time, hear the evidence and testimony, and make decision that may have a life-altering impact on others. Instead, it is an indictment of the process itself.

At the end of the day, it is important to understand that an indictment by a grand jury and the findings set forth in a presentment are not the equivalent of a finding of guilt. Rather, the factual findings made by a grand jury are akin to the accusations set forth in a Criminal Complaint and Affidavit of Probable Cause filed in most cases — they are accusations.

Despite this fact, if you are the target of a grand jury investigation, you should not take such designation lightly. Understanding that a grand jury’s findings and indictment simply set forth accusations and that guilt or innocence will be determined at a future date, you should not sit back and wait for the indictment. If you are the target of a grand jury investigation or have been subpoenaed as a witness, you should immediately seek the representation of a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania to protect your rights and interests from the inception of the process. If you find yourself in this tenuous situation, contact us today for a free phone consultation.

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