Law and Order, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Perry Mason – all TV dramas covering the world of criminal law. While most criminal defense attorneys would agree that these shows are not even close to what happens in the “real world,” the shows do get some of the terminology correct in their scenarios – one of those being the meaning of an indictment.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines indictment as “a written accusation of one or more persons of a crime or misdemeanor, presented to, and preferred upon oath or affirmation, by a grand jury legally convoked.” That definition is quite a mouthful and my still leave the reader unclear as to the meaning of an indictment and how it is any different than a criminal charge filed by the prosecutor.
A criminal charge filed by the prosecutor typically involves lower level felonies or misdemeanors. A felony complaint filed by the prosecutor is usually first handled in the municipal court having jurisdiction over the location in which the alleged charge occurred. The municipal court will hear a preliminary hearing during which the prosecutor must present enough evidence to establish probable cause that the charges should proceed. If the court finds probable cause, the case will be bound over to the county court of common pleas. In Lake County Ohio, felony cases from all three municipal courts get bound over to the Lake County Court of Common Pleas located in Painesville, Ohio.
An indictment follows a very different path. Rather than filing a complaint, the prosecutor will present evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury will weigh all the evidence and decide whether or not there is probable cause to charge an individual with the offense. Finding probable cause is much different than a finding of guilt which can only come after a full trial. Grand juries do not hear the actual trial.
In fact, typically the grand jury process does not involve any criminal defense attorneys or even judges. The only individuals present during the process are the jurors, prosecutor, court reporter, and the current witness. Witnesses are only present during their own testimony. The accused individual most likely will not be present either unless called as a witness. The accused individual does not have the right to have an attorney present during this proceeding.
A grand jury consists of nine individuals from the community. The individuals are selected randomly from the pool of registered voters. In order for the grand jury to indict an individual, seven of the nine jurors must vote to indict. If seven jurors do not vote to indict, a “no bill” is issued rather than an indictment.
If a “no bill” is issued, then the case is dismissed. However, the prosecutor can still attempt to indict the individual again in the future. If an indictment is issued, the individual will be appointed an attorney if they haven’t already retained one. The individual will then need to enter a plea to the charge and the court will set a bond. The case will then move through the court system either ending in trial, dismissal, or a plea.