What is an indictment?

The legal definition of an indictment is a formal accusation against an individual suspected of committing a crime. Indictments are usually needed for felony crimes, and the prosecutor must present their case in front of a grand jury in order to get an indictment. Once the indictment is obtained, the prosecutor can bring the defendant to court.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jan 7, 2021

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An indictment is a formal accusation against an individual suspected of committing a crime that begins the legal process in criminal law. Indictments are generally only obtained for felony charges. An indictment is used as an alternative to a complaint in a trial court. A complaint is also an accusation against an individual, but the individual generally must have been arrested as a result of probable cause or sufficient evidence against him before the criminal complaint can be entered.

However, an indictment against an individual can be obtained before any arrest warrant is issued or criminal charges are brought. Further, while a complaint is an affidavit signed by the prosecutor, an indictment is the product of sworn testimony, sometimes by several witnesses, and therefore holds more weight in court. Indictments are used most in the federal court system but can be used in the state courts as well.

How are indictments obtained?

There are a few steps to obtain an indictment against a suspected criminal. The criminal proceeding begins with the prosecutor presenting details of his or her case to a grand jury. A grand jury is a jury made of a group of 16-23 local citizens who are sworn in as a jury about every 18 months. Grand juries differ from trial juries, as grand jurors are required to sit for a much longer period of time than trial jurors are required.

Unlike most criminal procedure, there is no judge involved in a grand jury proceeding. And also unlike a trial jury, which hears equally from all parties in a criminal case, the grand jury is considered to be an arm of the criminal prosecution. As part of the criminal justice system, the grand jury generally hears only from the prosecution and a criminal defense attorney for accused is not yet a factor in the case. For these reasons, a grand jury indictment is fairly easy for the prosecution to obtain with little effort.

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What does the grand jury do?

The grand jury reviews the prosecutor’s evidence against the individual and determines if the prosecutor has enough probable cause to charge the suspected individual with the crime. The prosecutor can present witnesses to support his or her position, and the grand jury is generally allowed to question them directly during the proceedings. The suspected individual may also testify at the grand jury hearing, but is not allowed to bring in his or her own witnesses, nor may the individual or their defense lawyer have an opportunity to question any of the prosecutor’s witnesses.

Once the grand jury reviews the prosecutor’s case against the individual, they will determine whether or not the prosecutor has enough probable cause to move the case forward in court. Generally, at least 12 grand jurors must vote to approve the indictment for the indictment to move forward. Even if the indictment is approved, this only means that the prosecution has enough evidence to bring the case to court – it does not mean the suspected individual has been found guilty.

If the indictment is approved, the grand jury will return a true bill, and the prosecutor will bring the formal indictment to court. The indictment will list all formal charges against the individual, and set out a short statement that includes a description of the evidence against the individual, and how, when, and where the individual was believed to have committed the crime. If the grand jury does not believe that the prosecutor has enough evidence to move forward to trial, they will return a no bill and the prosecution will generally not be able to prosecute the case in court unless more evidence of wrongdoing surfaces that can add substance to the case.

What happens after an indictment is obtained?

If the prosecution successfully obtains an indictment against a suspected individual, she then brings the case to court, and the individual is arraigned. An arraignment is a hearing before the judge that informs the defendant of the charges against him. The defendant then has a chance to make a plea bargain with the prosecution or to have the criminal procedure move forward with a jury trial.

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