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What is the Difference Between a Grand Jury and a Jury Trial?

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Navigating the complexities of the Massachusetts legal system requires a clear understanding of key terms. A grand jury and trial jury play distinct yet pivotal roles in the judicial process, influencing the course of a case from its inception to its conclusion. A grand jury is responsible for determining whether there’s enough probable cause to charge someone with a crime. Contrastingly, a trial jury decides on the guilt or innocence of an accused individual. With our expertise, Nate Amendola Defense is dedicated to guiding our clients through each step of their legal journey, ensuring they understand the intricacies of these crucial legal components.

Grand Jury: Decision to Indict

A grand jury in Massachusetts is an essential element of the criminal justice system, particularly for serious offenses. It comprises 23 members from the community, whose primary function is to evaluate evidence presented by the prosecutor to determine if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the accused is responsible. This process, known as an indictment, is pivotal in deciding whether a case should proceed to trial.

The proceedings of a grand jury are conducted in secret. This secrecy is intended to protect the reputation of the accused if the jury decides against indictment. During these proceedings, only the grand jurors, the prosecutor, and witnesses giving testimony are present. Notably, the accused and their defense attorney are typically absent and do not present their side at this stage. As the grand jury does not judge guilt or innocence but only assesses the sufficiency of evidence for trial.

Jury Trial: Assessing Guilt or Innocence

Jury trials are a cornerstone of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, embodying the principle of being judged by one’s peers. In a jury trial, a group of citizens, known as jurors, are selected to hear a case. Their role is to objectively evaluate the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense and to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused based on this evidence. The jury’s decision, known as a verdict, must be unanimous in criminal cases.

The process begins with the selection of jurors, who are tasked with listening to testimonies, examining evidence, and following the judge’s instructions regarding the law. Both the prosecution and defense have opportunities to present their cases, including calling witnesses and presenting physical evidence. The defense, representing the accused, also has the right to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. After both sides have presented their cases and made closing arguments, the jury deliberates in private to reach a verdict.

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Understanding the Distinctions

Purpose and Decision-Making

The grand jury and the trial jury, while both integral to the judicial process, serve distinct purposes. The grand jury acts as a preliminary filter in the legal system, deciding whether enough evidence exists to charge an individual. This decision is critical as it determines whether a case has sufficient merit to proceed. On the other hand, the trial jury plays a decisive role at the culmination of the legal process, determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant after a thorough review of all evidence and testimonies presented in court.

The decision-making process also sets these two juries apart. For a grand jury to indict, a majority decision is sufficient, whereas a trial jury’s verdict in criminal cases requires unanimity. This unanimity requirement in trial juries underscores the high burden of proof in criminal cases – that the defendant must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Privacy and Proceedings

Another key difference lies in the privacy of their proceedings. The grand jury operates in a confidential setting, which serves multiple purposes: it protects the identity and reputation of the accused in cases where charges are not brought, and it fosters a more open dialogue from witnesses who might be hesitant to speak in a public forum. In contrast, the trial jury operates in a completely transparent manner. Their deliberations and verdict are conducted and delivered in a public setting, ensuring that the judicial process is open and accountable.


The composition of these juries is different too. A grand jury, larger in size, can have up to 23 members. This larger size is reflective of its role in reviewing a broad range of cases over a longer period. A trial jury, however, is smaller – typically 6 to 12 members – as they focus on a single case, diving deeply into the specifics and nuances of the evidence and testimonies presented.

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