News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Jenny A. Durkan
Western District of Washington

Statement Explaining Grand Jury Process

September 13, 2012

The U.S. Attorney’s Office cannot confirm or comment on the work of a grand jury, including whether any particular matter is before a grand jury.

It is important for the public to understand, however, that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal law enforcement work to protect our constitutional rights, including the cherished rights of Free Speech and Free Assembly.  We do not investigate or seek to silence lawful free speech, or dissent.  We do, however, investigate and enforce the law where speech crosses the line and becomes threats or acts of violence.  In other words, no one is investigated for what they believe; investigations focus on actions that constitute a crime.  Recent prosecutions and convictions include defendants who made threats against Senator Patty Murray, Congressman Jim McDermott, and Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride.

On May 1, 2012, many people marched peacefully in Seattle to express their views on a variety of issues facing our nation.  Such expression is a core part of our democratic values.  That same day, a minority used the event to cause significant damage to property and people.  They used clubs, spray paint and fire in a destructive attack on the historic William Kenzo Nakamura Federal Courthouse, causing damage, in violation of federal law.  Law enforcement has a duty to investigate the crimes, and hold the perpetrators accountable.  Law enforcement has asked for the public’s help in identifying those who crossed the line and turned a lawful protest into scenes of destruction and violence.  Our system of justice also provides a means to gather evidence from any witness to a crime.  By following set procedures, any person can be required to provide information they may have about events under investigation.  If the information would be incriminating, the person must be given immunity before they are required to testify because no one can be required to incriminate themselves.

It is important to remember the role of grand juries in our democracy.  Federal Grand juries were created in the U.S. Constitution as a basic guarantee of individual liberty.  Grand juries are tasked with investigating crimes and determining if there is enough evidence to prosecute a defendant for a specific crime.  The grand jury was created to be a check on government power and functions as one barrier to unfounded charges.  Grand jury investigations are, by law, secret.  This secrecy provides a number of protections.  It is meant, in part, to ensure that a person cannot stand accused of serious crimes until a group of citizens has determined the government’s evidence is sufficient.  The secrecy also allows witnesses to testify without fear of threats, harassment, or intimidation.  Because this protection is for the benefit of the witness, the witness has the right to choose not to keep his or her appearance secret. 

It is also worth noting that witnesses summoned to appear before a grand jury have rights, such as the right not to incriminate themselves, the right to consult with counsel, the right to have free court-appointed counsel (if they are unable to afford retained counsel), and the right to speak publicly about their experiences in the grand jury.  It is the standard practice of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to advise all civilian witnesses of these rights before asking any questions. 

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