Grand juries for dummies
by Eva Blum-Dumontet
What is a grand jury?
The purpose of a grand jury is to determine whether there are legitimate reasons to believe a crime has been committed and that a specific person committed it. In the case of Wikileaks, the grand jury in Virginia will try to determine if there is any probability that Julian Assange might be guilty of espionage. If so an indictment – a written statement of the charges – is written and the person suspected faces a trial.
Who is part of the grand jury?
Each state of the US has a pool of citizens who can stand as potential jurors for regular trials. The grand jurors are selected from those same pools. However, while in a regular trial each juror is being checked against any bias he/she may have, in a grand jury the jurors are randomly chosen regardless of the bias they may have. It is particularly significant in the case of the Wikileaks grand jury: indeed the grand jury is taking place in Alexandria, Virginia, where there is a very high concentration of military contractors and their families, a social group likely to be biased regarding Wikileaks.
How does a grand jury work?
The grand jurors only hear the viewpoint of the government’s attorney who presents his evidences as to why the person should be prosecuted. At no point the defence is heard. The grand jury examines the evidences and listens to testimonies from the witnesses. Both evidences and witnesses are chosen by the government’s attorney.
The government’s attorney is also the first one to ask the questions to the witness. The latter has a right to refuse to answer but the grand jury may decide to go to a court in order to obtain a ruling compelling the person to speak.
Among the witnesses from the Wikileaks grand jury were David House – one of Bradley Manning Support Network’s founders –; as well as a Cambridge resident; Nadia Heninger, a cryptography expert and Tyler Watkins, Bradley Manning’s ex-boyfriend. David House has publicly stated he refused to speak.
The choice in witnesses suggests the ambiguity between the Wikileaks Grand Jury and Bradley Manning’s trial, whose hearing sessions are currently taking place at Fort Meade. Manning’s lawyer David Coombs had already questioned the impartiality of Paul Almanza investigative officer for the article 32 hearing who was also working for the US department of defence, the same department in charge of the grand jury.
Grand Jury and secrecy
Originally to protect the jurors, to insure the presumption of innocence and to allow witnesses to make truthful testimonies, grand jury are held in secret. It is also meant to prevent the person against whom there might be an indictment from escaping. However, aside from the deliberation and voting any information may be shared with the government attorneys. As we will see in future posts, the secrecy of the Wikileaks grand jury has obviously been breached considering information regarding the deliberation were discussed in the Stratfor emails.
- Grand jury handbook published by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts [pdf].
- FAQs about the Grand Jury System (American Bar Association)
- Wikileaks Grand Jury investigation widens (Glenn Greenwald)
- What to expect in the Wikileaks Grand Jury Investigation (Kevin Gosztola)
Next post: “Stratfor emails: what did we learn about the Grand Jury?”