The word “indictment” appears very frequently in crime dramas and television shows. However, many people do not know exactly what indictment involves.
In reality, the concept of an indictment is rather simple. Essentially, it is a formal accusation against an individual who may have committed a very serious federal (and sometimes state, but this is rare) crime. According to FindLaw, indictments always come after the finalization of a grand jury investigation.
What is a grand jury?
A grand jury is not the same thing as the jury that decides whether or not an individual is guilty of committing a crime in a criminal case. Rather, it is a requirement from the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. In order for the federal government to prosecute somebody for a felony, there must be an indictment from a grand jury.
A grand jury trial is like a practice trial. The prosecution will present the grand jury with witness testimony and physical evidence if it exists. The grand jury will then examine this evidence and decide if there is probable cause for any criminal charges. Again, this is not declaring somebody innocent or guilty, but rather just examining if the serious accusations from the federal government have merit.
What does it take to get an indictment?
In order to get a federal indictment, a simple majority of the grand jury must decide that the government has probable cause to prosecute. Since the grand jury is not declaring the defendant guilty, the standard of proof is not as high as it is in the actual criminal trial. If grand jury decides in the favor of the government, the courts will issue the indictment.