Rather than tread over the ground well-described by my colleagues in the criminal defense bar, today I'd like to describe something else for you: what a federal grand jury proceeding looks like. From 1995 through 2000, I presented cases of varying complexity to federal grand juries as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
That experience did not inspire confidence in the process. Rather, it taught me that the adage that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich is an understatement. A better description would be that the prosecution can show a grand jury a shit sandwich and they will indict it as ham without looking up from their newspapers.
The notion that the Supreme Court relies upon — that the grand jury has a "historical role of protecting individuals from unjust persecution" — is not a polite fiction. A polite fiction would have some grounding in reality. It's an offensive fiction, an impudent fiction, a fiction that slaps you across the face and calls your mother a dirty bitch. . . .
On grand jury duty it was routine for me to present a dozen accusatory cases in a morning to the panel. I'd read the proposed indictment to the grand jury (which another federal prosecutor has drafted), offer to read them the relevant statutes and the elements of the offenses, and call a federal agent to summarize the evidence by hearsay, which is permitted. I probably presented between 200 and 300 cases this way over the course of my career as a federal prosecutor.
Having presented the case — the longest part of which was generally reading the indictment — the agent and court reporter and I would step out of the grand jury room and let the heavy wooden door close. I quickly learned to take several steps away from the door; if you didn't step away, when the door flew open moments later it would startle you and you would look foolish. The court reporter and I would file back into the room to put on the record that the grand jury had returned a true bill. The wait was very rarely more than five minutes, it was usually less than two, and not infrequently measured in seconds.
I only heard of one cases being declined by the accusatory grand jury in my years as a federal prosecutor: the case of a mother who let a dog out of its pen when INS agents arrived to arrest her son. The INS shot the dog dead and then sought her indictment for assault on a federal agent. The grand jury, to their credit, didn't buy it. During that five year period, my office probably secured around three or four thousand other indictments from accusatory grand juries. . . .
With very few exceptions — usually involving touchy cultural issues — the grand jury is a rubber-stamp. When it's accusatory it's a very minor speed bump, a speed bump like the one your neighbor's 17-year-old son races over in his truck at 2 in the morning.