While a criminal case can go from crime to verdict in 30 minutes on television, in real life they often take months or years to resolve and have various stages from arrest to trial. For some states, that stage is a grand jury indictment.
So how do grand juries work, what does it mean when they return an indictment, and what happens after a grand jury indictment?
Grand Juries, Indictments, and Sandwiches
Not all states employ grand juries, but for those that do it is an opportunity for an independent panel of citizens to review the government's evidence against a criminal defendant and decide if it is sufficient to move forward with charges. Grand juries are used in all federal cases, with the idea that they are a check on prosecutors filing inappropriate or malicious charges.
When a grand jury returns an indictment, it is an official charge that the defendant committed the crime alleged. The indictment also serves as a notice to a defendant of the charges against him or her. Because nearly all grand jury sessions feature the prosecution's evidence exclusively, the vast majority of grand juries return indictments. (As Tom Wolfe quoted New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler in "The Bonfire of the Vanities", "a grand jury would 'indict a ham sandwich,' if that's what you wanted.")
After a grand jury indictment, a defendant has the opportunity to enter a plea. A guilty plea could lead to a quick sentencing hearing or the imposition of a pre-arranged plea bargain with prosecutors. If a defendant pleads not guilty, the case will move forward to trial. It is still possible, though, to arrange a plea bargain after a guilty plea, and all the way until a verdict is reached at trial. It is important to note that an indictment is not a statement of guilt -- it is only a determination that enough evidence exists to move forward with charges.
If a defendant has yet to be arrested, he or she could be following the indictment. For defendants already in jail after their arrest and unable to bail themselves out, they could remain there after an indictment to await trial. Or a judge may set the conditions of their pre-trial release.
If you've been indicted by a grand jury, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.