What’s a special grand jury and how does it work?

A special grand jury, or special purpose grand jury, is impaneled specifically to investigate any alleged violation of the laws of the state of Georgia

Fani Willis
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference in Atlanta, Aug. 30, 2021. Former President Donald Trump recently told a mostly white crowd at a rally in Texas that his legal troubles are the fault of Black prosecutors he called racists. Trump repeated his charges of racism  to underscore his contention that he couldn’t possibly be treated fairly by Black officials who are leading Trump investigations in New York and Georgia. Willis — the Georgia prosecutor who asked a judge to impanel a special grand jury to help probe possible “criminal disruptions” by Trump and his allies during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath -- told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that threats and racist slurs against her have increased since Trump’s rally in Texas. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)Alyssa Pointer (AP)

The foreperson of a special grand jury that investigated whether former President Donald Trump and his allies illegally interfered in the 2020 election in Georgia raised some eyebrows this week when she gave interviews about a process that is typically cloaked in secrecy. But a special grand jury is different from a regular grand jury, and it’s an investigative tool that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis chose to help evaluate the facts in the case.

A special grand jury, or special purpose grand jury, is impaneled specifically to investigate any alleged violation of the laws of the state of Georgia.

A regular grand jury in Georgia is seated for a limited duration, one term of court — in Fulton County that’s two months. Grand jurors hear everything from felony shoplifting to murder cases and then decide whether to issue an indictment.

A special grand jury has no set term and focuses on a single topic. Unlike a regular grand jury, a special grand jury can subpoena the target of an investigation to appear before it, former Gwinnett County district attorney Danny Porter said. When the investigation is done, a special grand jury produces a report on its findings but can’t issue an indictment.

Special grand juries are used for an expansive topic that takes longer than a single term of court to investigate and often has to do with public corruption, Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia executive director Pete Skandalakis said.

“It’s usually because it’s a very labor-intensive investigation that’s going to take a while to do,” he said, adding the investigation could involve calling witnesses, poring over documents and consulting experts.

“The election case would be an ideal case for a special purpose grand jury,” Porter said.

That’s because it’s likely a complex case with a lot of witnesses and potential logistical concerns that will take more time and focus than a regular grand jury is able to spend, he said.

An elected public official in a county or a municipality within a county can ask the chief judge of the superior court in that county to impanel a special grand jury. It’s generally requested by a district attorney.

After receiving the request, the chief judge submits it to the judges of the superior court for a vote. If a majority of the judges vote in favor, the special grand jury is seated. It is made up of between 16 and 23 people who are summoned from the county master jury list.

A special grand jury can compel evidence and subpoena witnesses for questioning. It can inspect records, documents and correspondence of state or local government officials and their offices, and can require any person or company to produce records, documents or correspondence related to the subject it is investigating.

When the special grand jury finished its investigation, it issued a final report of its findings and also recommended action. The judge has said the report includes “a roster of who should (or should not) be indicted, and for what, in relation to the conduct (and aftermath) of the 2020 general election in Georgia.” But it’s up to the district attorney to decide whether to pursue an indictment. If the district attorney wants to seek an indictment, the case must be presented to a regular grand jury.

Skandalakis said there have probably only been a handful of special grand juries used in the entire state of Georgia in recent decades and it’s “very uncommon” for a district attorney to ask that one be impaneled.

Emily Kohrs, a 30-year-old Fulton County resident, described some of what happened behind the closed doors of the jury room — including how some witnesses behaved, how prosecutors interacted with witnesses and how some witnesses invoked their rights not to answer certain questions.

She told The Associated Press that prosecutors told the grand jurors they could read and watch the news but urged them to keep an open mind.

The judge overseeing the special grand jury, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, told the grand jurors they could discuss what witnesses said and what is in the report but could not talk about deliberations.

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