A criminal case in North Carolina normally starts in District Court where, after a period of time and one or more “probable cause” dates at which a probable cause hearing is almost never held (at least in Wake County), the case is sent to a grand jury.
In the meantime, the North Carolina grand jury meets in secret with only the law enforcement officer present to give his side of the story. The case is almost invariably indicted – meaning that the grand jury by a vote returns a True Bill of Indictment – which is a fancy way of saying that the accusation against the Defendant has now moved the case into Superior Court.
(Cases can also reach Superior Court by criminal information, and that must be done with the consent of the Defendant. This happens when the Defendant is pleading guilty to a crime and is waiving indictment and proceeding on a separate charging instrument drawn up by the prosecution so to speed the case along.)
Except in certain drug conspiracy cases, North Carolina lacks what are called “investigatory” grand juries. These are grand juries that are convened for the purpose of subpoena’ing witnesses, and having people testify under oath, with the idea that it is a prosecutor’s tool to collect additional sworn testimony.
Grand juries can be problematic. In North Carolina, defense counsel has no right to be present at a grand jury, and cannot put on any evidence to the grand jury to try to counter the state’s claims.
Grand juries were once thought of as counterweights to runaway prosecutorial discretion – by involving citizens who form the Grand Jury early in the process. But they have become just tools of prosecutors and police.
If North Carolina wants to expand the use of grand juries, as Attorney General Roy Cooper has proposed to include investigations involving financial fraud or public corruption, then North Carolina should also look at reforming grand juries so they are fairer with respect to all our rights.