A criminal indictment is an important step in the prosecution of a suspected criminal and it’s important to know what a criminal indictment is in case you are ever faced with one.

Criminal Indictments are Written Documents

A criminal indictment is a written document stating the exact charges a person is being brought to trial on. It happens after an arrest and before a trial begins. Criminal indictments are not used in all cases in the United States; however, they are used in the majority of both state and federal cases.

Right to an Indictment

Any criminal defendant in the United States has the right to a criminal indictment unless he or she formally waives that right. Sometimes defendants enter plea bargains in which they agree to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. These defendants waive their right to an indictment. Defendants who are accused of misdemeanors rather than felonies do not have to have a criminal indictment.

Indictments and Grand Jury

When state or federal law enforcement agents arrest someone, they seize the person and take him or her to jail. The district attorney must then formally indict the person. This usually happens in front of a grand jury.

The grand jury consists of 16 to 23 jurors, depending on whether it is a state or federal crime.  The number of grand jurors differs from state to state, while all federal grand juries contain 23 people. In any case, the grand jury hears evidence from the district attorney regarding why he or she believes the defendant is guilty of the crime. The grand jury’s job is not to determine the guilt or innocence of the criminal defendant; it must determine whether there is probable cause to bring the defendant to trial. If the grand jury doesn’t think the evidence is strong enough, it will not issue an indictment, and police cannot continue to hold the defendant in jail. However, if new evidence surfaces, the defendant can be re-arrested and a new grand jury convened to indict him or her. This is different than double jeopardy, which prohibits criminal defendants from being arrested and brought to trial more than once on the same charges.

How Grand Jury Procedures Work

Grand jury hearings are usually secret. The defendant and his or her attorney are generally not present for the indictment hearing. Instead, the government presents the grand jury with a list of charges against the defendant and evidence for each of these charges. The grand jury hears this evidence then deliberates in private. A majority – more than 50 percent – of the grand jurors must agree that there is probable cause to bring a defendant to trial.  However, the entire jury does not have to agree.

Once the grand jury makes its decision, it will hand down indictments. The indictments are a written list of the charges the defendant will be brought to trial on.

Elements of a Criminal Indictment

Once the grand jury decides to indict a person on criminal charges, it must issue a written indictment. The indictment must contain several elements. First, it must list the exact laws or statutes a defendant is accused of breaking. It must also list the exact circumstances the prosecution alleges occurred and the exact charges it is pressing against the defendant. The indictment must also summarize the evidence that the crime took place. Finally, the foreperson of the grand jury and the prosecuting attorney must both sign the indictment.

The criminal indictment serves two purposes. It informs the defendant of the charges filed against him or her as well as providing all pertinent information that he or she needs to defend against those charges. Without a criminal indictment, defendants cannot be held in jail or brought to trial, so grand juries are usually convened as soon as possible after an arrest.