In recent years, the institution of the grand jury has come under increasing public scrutiny. The decisions of grand juries in Missouri and Ohio not to indict police officers in cases involving fatal shootings of citizens have received a great deal of media attention. In Texas, the recent decision of a grand jury in Harris County to indict pro-life activists rather than Planned Parenthood has been covered extensively in the press, with some defending the outcome and others calling it a “runaway” grand jury.
This CLE presentation will examine the history of the grand jury, beginning with the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, which instituted criminal judicial procedures from which our grand jury traces its origin. The grand jury began, in the absence of professional police, as a royal mechanism for gathering information from local leaders about suspected criminals in their communities. Over the centuries, it has evolved into an official proceeding to assess the adequacy of evidence submitted by a public prosecutor. Future discussions about the ethics and efficacy of grand jury proceedings should take into account the history of the institution and the extent to which it has veered away from its original purpose.