Explainer: What is a grand jury indictment?

As a grand jury issues an indictment against Donald Trump, we explain what that term means.
Explainer: What is a grand jury indictment?
Posted at 11:20 AM, Mar 31, 2023

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg confirmed Thursday that a grand jury has returned an indictment against former President Donald Trump. Bragg has not confirmed what Trump is being charged with or when Trump will be arraigned. 

Although there remain many questions on Trump’s indictment, there is a general procedure followed for indictments in New York. 

What is an indictment?

An indictment is a formal charge of a crime.

If prosecutors believe a crime has been committed, they can take their evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury consists of 23 members who meet in secret. A defense attorney is present only if the accused person chooses to testify, according to the court system. The defense attorney is not allowed to speak to the grand jury.

Although a judge selects the grand jury, a judge is not on hand when the grand jury meets. 

If 12 of the 23 members agree that there is probable cause — meaning it is likely but not certain — a crime has been committed, the grand jury can issue an indictment. The prosecutor then can press criminal charges against the defendant, allowing law enforcement to issue an arrest warrant. 

Shortly after the arrest, the defendant goes before a judge for arraignment, where charges are read. At that point, the defendant can issue a plea of guilty or not guilty. 

At an arraignment, the judge decides on a bond. The judge can also entertain motions, like whether a suspect is required to remain in the U.S. while awaiting trial. 

SEE MORE: Former Manhattan prosecutor: Case against Trump not a slam-dunk

What happens inside a grand jury room remains secret

Although many court trials end up becoming televised spectacles, grand jury hearings are much more secretive. In New York, grand jurors are prohibited from speaking about the case.

Also, those inside a grand jury room are generally only those who have official duties, such as a prosecutor. 

Grand jurors in New York cannot directly question a witness but can provide questions to prosecutors who can decide if they are relevant. 

Most of what has been revealed so far about Trump's grand jury proceeding has come from witnesses, who aren't under the same obligation to remain quiet.

SEE MORE: History of legal problems US presidents have faced

What is the difference between an indictment and conviction?

To get an indictment in New York, just 12 out of 23 grand jurors have to rule that a person likely committed a crime. The jurors can still vote for an indictment even if they believe there is reasonable doubt so long they believe it is likely a crime was committed

A conviction is a much higher bar. For felony trials, a suspect can request a jury trial, unless it is a murder trial. In the case of a jury trial, a panel of 12 jurors all must agree that, without reasonable doubt, the suspect has committed a crime. Some misdemeanor trials in New York City also are jury trials.

In cases without a jury, it is up to a judge to decide whether to convict.

A potential trial could take months or even over a year to begin. 

SEE MORE: What does Donald Trump's indictment mean for his presidential run?

What do we know about the Trump grand jury?

Given the general process for a grand jury, we know that 12 out of 23 grand jurors believe it is likely Trump committed a crime. What that crime is will not be known until the indictment is unsealed. 

We know that a number of witnesses were called to testify to the grand jury, including Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels. Joseph Tacopina told the Associated Press that Trump had been invited to testify to the grand jury. It is believed he did not accept the invitation. 

But given the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, many details may never be known.