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George Zimmerman Case: What Is a Grand Jury?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. | Last updated on

If you've been following the George Zimmerman shooting case in Florida, or if you're a fan of Law & Order, you've probably heard the term "grand jury" tossed around a few times. You might be wondering what a grand jury is.

Is it simply a "grander" version of a regular jury panel?

Actually, it isn't. Grand juries serve a different purpose than trial juries. Here are some of the main differences:

Trial juries are usually assembled to hear a case and issue judgments based on the evidence presented by the defense and prosecution. They determine a defendant's guilt or innocence.

Grand juries, on the other hand, are convened to issue indictments. Indictments are handed down against criminal defendants accusing them of a crime. So a grand jury's role is essentially to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to bring someone to trial.

For example, in George Zimmerman's case, a grand jury will consider charges in connection with the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. Zimmerman claims self-defense under Florida's "stand your ground" law in Martin's killing.

State laws regarding grand juries differ, and not all jurisdictions will have them. Many grand juries do not require unanimous decisions in order to indict.

And the evidence you can produce at a grand jury proceeding is broader compared to a regular legal proceeding.

At a grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor can often bring in evidence that was obtained illegally. For example, they can introduce surveillance footage that violated the defendant's constitutional rights. They can also include hearsay evidence.

So, some of the things that will make their way into a grand jury proceeding will actually be inadmissible at a later trial.

The prosecutor usually plays a larger role in grand jury proceedings. Lawyers for witnesses are usually not allowed. And the defense attorney does not have much say in what goes on.

Usually, a grand jury will only get to hear one side of the case -- the prosecutor's side. But remember, a grand jury proceeding -- like the one set to convene April 10 in George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin -- is only the initial step. If there's enough to indict a defendant, the trial comes later.

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