What is an indictment?
An indictment (pronounced in-dite-ment) is the formal document issued by a grand jury alleging a defendant committed a crime. It is one step in the system of checks and balances within the criminal justice system. A felony case (and on the rare occasion, a misdemeanor) cannot proceed unless it is presented to a panel of individuals (grand jurors) who vote on the basic merits of the case.
As you’re learning more about an indictment, the indictment process, and what it means for your case, keep in mind that an indictment does not mean guilt. It simply means that a group of (what should be) impartial individuals have determined that there’s enough reason to believe that this crime may have occurred.
To better understand the indictment process, let’s start with a couple of definitions and then some of the common questions asked regarding an indictment.
An indictment is the formal written statement of a grand jury accusing a person of a criminal offense.
A grand jury is a panel of 12 individuals who have been determined by a District Court judge to have met certain basic qualifications (as set out by Article 19.08 of the Criminal Code Procedure), such as: resident of the county, able to read and write, not under indictment, etc.
What happens at the grand jury hearing?
A prosecutor presents basic information to a panel of grand jurors. Typically, this consists of simply reciting relevant case facts and presentation of documents. The prosecutor also has the right to bring in witnesses. The panel is not deciding the innocence or guilt, only if sufficient probable cause exists for a case to move forward.
Do all cases get presented to the grand jury for indictment?
Felony: All felony cases must be presented for indictment. The only exception is if the defendant waives the formal grand jury process. It is rare that an attorney would recommend waiving the grand jury process unless there is some perceived advantage to his client.
Misdemeanors: A prosecutor can choose to present a misdemeanor case to a grand jury. However, nearly all misdemeanor cases typically undergo a different, less formal charging process.
What are the outcomes of a grand jury hearing?
True Bill (aka “indicted”) – this is the written decision that the grand jury has heard enough evidence to conclude that the case should proceed. A true bill means that the case is in fact “indicted”.
No Bill (aka “not indicted”) – the grand jury declares that there is not enough evidence to indict someone on a criminal charge.
What happens if the grand jury “no bills” my case?
When a grand jury issues a “no bill”, the defendant may be released from prosecution.
Although “no bills” do occur, please keep in mind that the vast majority of cases get indicted. As you can see in the next FAQ, the prosecutor gets more than one bite at the apple.
Can a case be presented to more than one grand jury?
Unfortunately, yes. A case can be presented to multiple grand juries during the entire statute of limitations period. At any given time, Travis County has three grand juries, selected and sworn in. Perhaps the most famous occurrence of this involves former U.S. Congressman Tom Delay. In 2005, his case was presented to several grand juries who voted to “no bill”. Eventually, the prosecutor found one to return a “true bill”. He was eventually convicted, then went to the time and expense of a costly appeal.
A skilled, strategic attorney who maintains essential relationships with the prosecutors is crucial in turning a “no bill” into a dismissal…the first time.
Can I or my attorney be there when the prosecutors present my case to the grand jury?
The short answer is no, but it’s theoretically possible. Grand jury hearings are secretive “closed” hearings where only select individuals can be present: grand jurors, prosecuting attorney, witnesses (an accused individual can be called as a witness), bailiffs, stenographer, and an interpreter, if needed.
How long can a case remain “unindicted”?
A case can remain unindicted for the entire duration of the statute of limitations; this means you could be going to court for years without a resolution.
To better understand what this means for you, let’s look at the typical order of case events. In Travis, Williamson, and Hays Counties, the typical order of case events is as follows:
- Alleged crime occurs
- Pretrial hearings
- Negotiated resolution or Trial
In most situations, the statute of limitations begins when the alleged crime occurs.
After an arrest, a case remains on the court’s Unindicted Docket. During this time, the statute of limitations clock is running. This means that the prosecutor has a limited (but lengthy) time to keep your case open after the alleged crime occurs or you’re arrested. The length of the statute of limitations ranges from 2-5 years (and in the rare instance, no limit). ***Please note that once a case is “indicted”, the statute of limitations clock stops, and the case can remain open as long as the judge allows.
Is the grand jury the same group of people who would be at my trial?
No. If a case does eventually proceed to trial, the defense and prosecutors go through a process (voir dire) to select the trial jury.
Keep in mind though that we resolve the vast majority (nearly 70%) of our cases to DISMISSAL without the cost and risk of trial.
Let’s recap: The indictment is an important event in a criminal case. The overwhelming majority of cases do get indicted. But, if your case is indicted, it’s not the end of the world…it’s actually the beginning of the prosecution phase.
But here’s the good news: indicted or not indicted, we get the vast majority of our clients’ cases dismissed. There are several ways we achieve these results, including negotiated dismissals, diversionary programs, and case reductions. The attorney you hire will have a direct impact on the outcome of your case.
While an indictment is not proof of guilt, it is a serious matter. Fight for your future and get a skilled attorney in your corner.