Grand Juries Actually Serve The Opposite Purpose They Were Intended For
In medieval England, one of the main ways to determine someone's guilt or innocence was "trial by ordeal." In this case, "ordeal" is a hilariously understated way of saying "nearly kill them through boiling water, drowning, or hot irons, and see if God saves them." So you can understand why an accusation even going to trial was a bit of a hassle for the accused. Rather than kill someone every time God was taking a nap, authorities decided to put a check on this system with grand juries, who would decide if a case even warranted going to trial.
As trials became slightly less barbaric, going to trial still remained quite a burden for common folk, so the idea of grand juries evolved with the times and were exported to England's colonies. After the U.S. split from England, the grand jury remained a right guaranteed to every American standing in a federal court by the Fifth Amendment. Grand Juries were included in the Bill of Rights as a check on prosecutorial power. Remember that our courts operate on an adversarial system, but one of the two adversaries has the considerable resources of the government backing them up. While that's an admirable goal, the modern incarnation of grand juries have all the drawbacks of being an outdated, stupid system while also retaining all the drawbacks of being a highly modernized bureaucratic waste of resources. As our founding fathers almost certainly would have put it: They suck balls and they don't protect anyone from shit.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
You may remember the hit song "Grand Juries (Fuck That Noise)" from Hamilton.
In 2010, roughly 162,000 suspects were pursued in criminal proceedings by U.S. district attorneys, and out of all of these, only eleven failed to receive a bill of indictment by a grand jury. You are literally more likely to be struck by lightning than be acquitted by a grand jury. Unless you are a police officer, that is. One New York Chief Judge, Sol Wachtler, said, "any prosecutor who wanted to could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich."
How are prosecutors able to boast such an impressive success rate? Turns out, there is practically zero supervision for the grand jury process, and defendants aren't even allowed to be present (much less defend themselves). Grand Juries are cloak and dagger affairs conducted under a level of secrecy normally reserved for nuclear launch codes and the Colonel's secret ingredient.
And even if everything were out in the open, the usual protections for defendants in a trial do not apply to grand jury proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Courts have held that the standard for evidence admissible to a grand jury is frighteningly low: The Fourth Amendment (freedom from search and seizure) is inapplicable to grand juries, hearsay is a valid piece of evidence, and evidence presented before a grand jury can impact the inevitable trial to come. This means that in some states prosecutors can (and do) bring unreliable witnesses before grand juries and use their unreliable testimony against the defendant (who didn't get to question the witness, because they weren't at the grand jury proceedings).
"In conclusion, Colonel Mustard, with the rope, in the-eh, doesn't matter. Guilty. Next."
Despite the fact that grand juries were created to be a bulwark against "ordeals" from false accusations -- getting boiled to death can be a real hassle -- in the modern era, they're at best a waste of resources, and at worst an unfair advantage given to government prosecutors. They're a relic of medieval law that the framers of the Constitution hoped would serve as a shield against the unfounded prosecution of American citizens, but unfortunately, often result in the unjust harassment by unrestricted prosecutors. The U.S. and Liberia are the only countries in the world that continue the practice. No offense to Liberia, but maybe that's not such a good thing.
John Martin is a history teacher who also does other stuff; you can buy things from him here. Luke Miller used to keep the skies safe as an Air Traffic Controller, but, right now, he writes dick jokes for Cracked.
For more ideas we might want to rethink, check out 5 Bad Ideas Humanity Is Sticking With Out Of Habit and 5 'Innocent' Things We Do (Are Environmentally Catastrophic).
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