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Why don't we hear more about grand juries?
 
        Everything about a grand jury is cloaked in secrecy, and most jurisdictions make it a crime to violate that secrecy.  In the federal system, for example, Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure requires that "matters occurring before the grand jury" be kept secret.  The rule also says that if anyone bound by secrecy reveals "matters occurring before" a grand jury, this is "CRIMINAL contempt."  The rule of secrecy binds everyone with access to grand jury proceedings (prosecutors, grand jurors, court reporters, and clerical personnel who help a prosecutor prepare for grand jury appearances), except the witnesses who testify before a grand jury. 

Row of Prisoners        A witness can talk about what happened when he or she testified before the grand jury, but none of the other people who were present inside the grand jury can.  If anyone who is bound by grand jury secrecy reveals grand jury information, they can be charged with criminal contempt and, if they are found guilty, sentenced to imprisonment and/or a fine.  (They can also be charged with obstructing justice; this charge can be brought instead of, or in addition to, the criminal contempt charge.  And if someone cooperated with others to reveal grand jury information, they can be charged with conspiring to commit criminal contempt and/or to obstruct justice.)

 

        The identities of the grand jurors are secret, as are the identities of the witnesses who testify before them and any evidence they consider.  If, for example, a grand jury were to hear recordings of telephone conversations that were recorded secretly, by a wiretap, the information contained in those recordings, and the fact the recordings exist, is all secret.  If a grand jury hears scientific evidence--like the results of DNA tests--that information is also secret.   

Courtroom View        As Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of the relationship between President Clinton and former White House interns illustrates, any hearings on grand jury matters are secret.  If, for example, a witness claims that he or she shouldn't have to testify before the grand jury (maybe because they claim a privilege), the arguments on the motion and the court's ruling on the motion are all secret.  Courts usually seal the courtroom when they're hearing arguments on motions like these, so the press and the public can't hear what is going on.    The picture above depicts a sealed proceeding on a motion to quash a subpoena.

 

Jury Room with Witness       Although grand jury proceedings are secret, they are recorded in most jurisdictions.  The recording can be done by a court reporter, just like the court reporters who record trials, or by a tape recorder.   Here, you see a female court reporter sitting beside a male prosecutor--the grand jury is in session, the police officer is testifying, and she is recording the proceedings:

 

        The court reporter's notes, the tapes, and/or the transcripts made from either are secret and can't be revealed except in extraordinary circumstances.  To obtain grand jury transcripts, the person seeking the transcripts has to show he or she has a specific, compelling need for them and, usually, that the transcripts are to be used in connection with a "judicial proceeding."  This is the rule for people seeking grand jury transcripts for use in civil cases.  Prosecutors can give transcripts and other grand jury information to other prosecutors or to other grand juries, if the information is to be used to investigate and/or bring charges for the commission of crimes.

        Many years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court explained why grand jury proceedings are secret.  According to the Court, which was relying on earlier common law, there are four reasons why grand jury proceedings are secret. Secrecy prevents those who are being investigated from interfering with witnesses and otherwise tampering with the investigation. It encourages witnesses who might be reluctant to testify if their comments were made public to be speak freely when they are brought before the grand jury. It decreases the likelihood that one who is about to be indicted by a grand jury will flee and thereby avoid being brought to trial on those charges. And, finally, it protects innocent persons whose names may be implicated in a grand jury investigation but who will never be indicted. 

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