Grand Jury History - Origins

"Truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature."

Thomas Bacon 1625

The Grand Jury is an institution of ancient origin. Its use as an instrument of government antedates its introduction into our country during colonial time, and has been continued and used throughout the whole of American history.

The Grand Jury originated in England as the accusing body in the administration of criminal justice. At the Assize of Clarendon, in 1166 Henry II provided that twelve knights or twelve "good and lawful men" of every hundred and four lawful men of every vill disclose under oath the names of those in the community believed guilty of criminal offenses.

At first, all accusations originated with the members of the inquest themselves, but gradually the juries came to consider accusations made by outsiders as well. The jurors then heard only witnesses against the accused and, if they were convinced that there were grounds for trial, indicted him. They also passed upon indictments laid before them by crown prosecutors, returning a "true bill" if they found the accusation true or a "no bill" if they found it false. However, the juries never lost their power to accuse on their own knowledge. Originally an important instrument of the Crown, it gradually became instead a strong independent power guarding the rights of the English people

Grand Jury History – Colonial Era

"To do nothing is in every man’s power." Samual Johnson

"The first faults are theirs that commit them; the second theirs that permit them." Unknown

When English colonists went to the New World during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they took with them the institution of the Grand Jury inquest.

The first regular grand jury to sit in the English colonies attended the Court of Assistants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in September, 1635. Until that time, the Assistants, acting as magistrates, had exercised almost complete power in criminal matters, had made the laws and had determined who should be tried.

The presentments of Plymouth grand juries revealed a great interest in community problems. In 1638, a grand jury rebuked the Town of Sandwich "for not having their swine ringed," complained of the lack of surveyors for repairing the highway, and questioned the right of the governor and assistants to sell land to certain persons.

At first, the law provided no penalty for the failure to summon grand jurors, but some counties went several years without impaneling an inquest. After warning letters from the governor proved ineffectual, a law was finally passed, in 1677, providing that any justice of the peace who neglected to "swear a jury of inquest" before the first of April each year be fined two thousand pounds of tobacco and that any grand juryman not appearing be fined two hundred pounds of tobacco.

Grand Jury History – A New Nation

"Justice is the bread of a nation, it is always hungry for it." Francis de Chateaubriand

"The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest." Thomas Jefferson

Gradually, the grand jury assumed the role of an investigatory and advisory body to the county courts. It took on such tasks as setting the price to be paid for private property taken for public use and reporting on the conditions of roads, bridges, and public buildings. In addition, the laws of the colony imposed upon local grand juries the tasks of inquiring into the methods of mulberry cultivation and silk making, checking to see that families planted two acres of corn for each titheable person, and examining tobacco hogsheads to make certain they were the required size. They could and often did present other matters upon their own initiative, as did the jurors who complained that the local ministers were negligent "in not checking upon those who failed to attend church on Sunday" (Virginia). After 1700, grand jurors let contracts for bridge building in their respective counties. The also inspected bridges, public buildings, and jails and presented to the court any evidence of neglect of them. The American colonists gradually came to realize the value of the grand juries as a means of obtaining redress of grievances from proprietors and of opposing the power of royal officials.

As the colonial towns grew and were incorporated, the grand jury became an instrument for popular participation in municipal as well as in county and provincial government. In some areas towns could be prosecuted upon the presentment of a grand jury. Just such a threat inspired the Boston town meeting to vote a thousand pounds for the repair of streets which the jurors had presented as being "in ruinous condition."

By the end of the Colonial, period the grand jury had become an indispensable part of government in each of the American colonies.

Just as the early Colonists had done, settlers moving into the Trans-Appalachian wilderness took the grand jury with them as an accepted part of local government, and few imported institutions proved as adaptable to the spirit of the frontier as did the grand inquest. The grand jury served as an agency of law and order in the West, and while it may have lacked the efficiency and singleness of purpose of the public prosecutor, it made up for this deficiency by emphasizing democratic participation in law enforcement.

Grand Jury History - Civil War Era

"We are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such, but for what we are capable of being." Henry Davis Thoreau 1817-1862

The American Civil War, like other crises in American history, again demonstrated the value of local democratic institutions like the Grand Jury. The juries served as sounding boards for both judicial and lay opinion on the aims and conduct of the war and as more or less effective checks to official and military excesses brought on by wartime conditions.

Throughout the war period, state grand juries did not lose their concern for local affairs. They remained important law enforcement agencies and continued to propose solutions to the everyday problems of their communities.

"We would also recommend to the Officers having the charge of the public building that it would be well to turn an eye to a certain outhouse and see if they think said house is in a fit condition for use; we are of the opinion that is it not."

Excerpt 1856 Amador County Grand Jury Report

"The Grand Jury upon examining the County Jail find the rooms clean, the bedding and other accommodations good.

We find upon examination of the County Hospital that the patients are fully satisfied with their accommodations.

We find the roads in the difficult portions of the County in a bad condition and would recommend that the Board of Supervisors look into this matter and see that they are put in good condition. The Grand Jury return thanks to the Sheriff and District Attorney for their attention and kindness shown to them while in session."

Grand Jury History – Turn of the Century

"This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it is a good place for all of us to live." Theodore Roosevelt

San Francisco had long laid claim to the title, "the wickedest city in the world." It had its "Barbary Coast," famed for dives and gamblers, and its mysterious dimly lighted Chinatown where rival tongs fought bloody wars over the profits of a lucrative vice traffic. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, Boss "Blind Chris" Buckley, controlled the municipal government of San Francisco in the interest of graft and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Boss Buckley saw to it that the Southern Pacific got what it wanted. Buckley had things pretty much his own way in the city until citizens began to complain.

Several attempts by grand juries to oppose the corrupt government of San Francisco were unsuccessful between the year's of 1890 and 1907. A thorough investigation occurred in 1906, but the subsequent planned cleanup was prevented by the earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906. Finally, in March of 1907, after grand jurors "labored to unearth evidence of bribery and graft," they succeeded in trapping Supervisor Thomas F. Lonergan into accepting a bribe. On March 20, 1907, the jury returned sixty-five bribery indictments. After this, the decision of who was to govern San Francisco was left up to the grand jury, for it alone held the confidence of the citizens and could make the supervisors do its bidding.

To be completely unhampered in their investigation, the jurors decided to allow the old supervisors to remain and continue to manage the city’s affairs, but the grand inquest continued as "the power behind the throne," holding the municipal legislators in line through the threat of indictment. In this manner they assumed control of the executive and legislative as well as the judicial affairs in San Francisco.