Why An Indictment Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

If you were to believe the media, an individual receiving an indictment would be classified as guilty. And who knows, perhaps they are! However, until a fair trial actually takes place, an indictment doesn’t mean incarceration. In fact, it doesn’t mean much at all.

An “indictment” is a formal charge or accusation of a crime. – It is similar to a “complaint” in the civil justice system. An “indictment” represents a step in the criminal justice process where a prosecutor sets forth accusations, but it’s important to understand its implications and what it does not mean.

What is an Indictment?

In many jurisdictions, especially within the United States, an indictment is issued by a grand jury. A grand jury is a group of citizens convened to review evidence and determine whether there is enough probable cause to bring a person to trial on criminal charges. Prosecutors can issue a charge without a “grand jury” and typically only use a “grand jury” when an issue is politcally charged, so they can say “I didn’t charge this person with a crime, the grand jury did it.”

Here are the key things to understand about indictments:

Probable Cause: For an indictment to be issued, the grand jury must determine that there’s probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that the accused person committed it. Probable cause is a very low standard. To be convicted, a prosecutor must submit proof of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There is no way for a prosecutor to avoid the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. It is baked into the system and is required for a criminal conviction. “Probably cause” is the equivalent of what a police officer might need to conduct a search.

No Determination of Guilt: An indictment does not determine guilt. It simply means a group of people selected to be on a “grand jury” think that there’s enough evidence to justify proceeding. Of course, all the people on a “grand jury” see and hear is what the prosecutor wants them to see and hear. They see no exculpatory info, and they do not hear from the targeted “defendant” or their attorney. A prosecutor obtaining an indictment is about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

Not a Trial: The grand jury process is not a trial. It is a one-sided process where the prosecution presents evidence, and there is no obligation for the evidence to be contested or for the defense to be represented. In fact, suppose a prosecutor has 2 witnesses, 1 who says the accused was seen near the bank at a time of the robbery, and a 2nd witness who says the accused was a thousand miles away from the the bank: the prosecutor is not obliged to present the observations of the 2nd witness to the people selected to serve on the “grand jury.”

Why Doesn’t an Indictment Result in a Guilty Plea?

After an indictment, a defendant will be arraigned, which is a formal court appearance where they are informed of the charges against them. It is at this point (or sometimes at later stages) that a defendant can enter a plea, which might be “guilty,” “not guilty,” or sometimes “no contest.” Most of the time the plea is “not guility” because the accused has had no time to study the information raised by the indictment.

Several reasons explain why an indictment doesn’t typically result in a guilty plea:

Presumption of Innocence: In the criminal justice system, every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. An indictment is simply an accusation. It is not proof of anything.

Right to a Fair Trial: Every accused individual has the right to a fair trial. They might believe that, once all the evidence is presented and contested in a court of law, the prosecutor’s case will fail for lack of evidence, or because what the indictment accused them of doing isn’t even illegal. For example, suppose a person is indicted for owning a firearm. Owning a firearm in most situations is a Constitutionally guaranteed right, and cannot be made into a crime at the whim of a prosecutor and/or grand jury.

Strategic Reasons: Pleading not guilty can also be a strategic decision. The defense might believe they can negotiate a better plea deal at a later stage, or they might want to see the full evidence the prosecution has before deciding on a plea.

Actual Innocence: The accused might genuinely believe (or indeed be) innocent and wish to contest the charges in court.

While an indictment in most situations ought to be taken seriously, it’s only a step in the criminal justice process. The determination of guilt or innocence is made in a court of law. In fact, at a trial the indictment itself does not even constitute evidence.

So Why Do We Share This Great Information?

We share it to give you an insight into how an indictment works and how the media can manipulate information to incite the court of public opinion. That’s how they sell news. Very few media outlets share truth or fight for the truth. And although we are not criminal lawyers, we are in fact personal injury lawyers, we do fight for the truth every single day.

The Law Offices of David W. Holub is a personal injury law firm located in Merrillville, Indiana, focused on providing efficient and effective client-centered representation. Our mission is to provide top quality legal representation, which includes an uncompromising pursuit of our client’s legal interests, while being accessible and attentive to our clients during times of personal challenge.

The firm concentrates in personal injury cases of all types, medical malpractice, and wrongful death litigation. We work tirelessly to serve each client aggressively and with empathy, to communicate regularly and clearly, and to obtain prompt and favorable results, while adhering to the highest standards of excellence and integrity. Our team considers it a high honor to be called upon to serve our clients whom we often come to regard as our friends.

If you’ve been injured and are looking for answers we invite you to make use of the information on our website, and to call our law office at (219) 736-9700 to schedule a time to talk directly to us and see firsthand if we are the right law firm for you.

If you would like to learn more about personal injury law, we encourage you to listen to our Personal Injury Primer Podcast where we break down the law into simple terms, provide legal tips, and discuss topics related to personal injury law. And read “Fighting For Truth: A Trial Lawyer’s Insight Into What It Takes To Win” an entertaining and enlightening book pulling readers into the courtroom giving them a glimpse of the legal process and what it takes to win at trial.

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