US legal lingo: What is an indictment and what is a grand jury?

Former US president Donald Trump is expected to make his first public appearance in court in New York next week

Former US president Donald Trump has been indicted over hush money payments made to a porn actor before the 2016 presidential election over an alleged affair between the couple.

What is an indictment?

It is a charging document or a formal accusation initiating a criminal case, presented by a grand jury. In Trump’s case, it is a felony indictment meaning that he faces a charge or charges, known as counts in the US, that amount to felonies or serious crimes.

The grand jury voted to indict Trump after investigating a $130,000 payout to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels in an attempt to buy her silence over their alleged affair.

What is a grand jury?

Comprising members of the public who are typically registered voters, a grand jury hears evidence presented by a prosecutor and determines whether there is enough evidence to prosecute a person and whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.


The jury has wide-ranging investigative powers. It can issue subpoenas to compel people to testify or disclose documents and it can ask questions of witnesses that come before it.

A federal grand jury, which weighs up whether there is evidence of US federal or national laws being broken, comprises between 16 and 23 people and a majority must vote to indict.

Why are the charges not known?

It is not yet known what charge or charges Trump is facing because they are “under seal” and have not been disclosed, but details are likely to emerge next Tuesday, the date reportedly agreed between prosecutors and Trump’s legal team for his “surrender”.

His first appearance in the case will be at an arraignment hearing where the charge or charges will be outlined in court. At this point, the indictment becomes “unsealed” or made public.

Like anyone criminally charged, Trump will be fingerprinted and have his mugshot taken.

The judge presiding over the case will present the charge or charges in open court – the first time a former US president has been charged with a crime – and Trump will enter a plea, starting what is expected to be a lengthy legal battle between prosecutors and the former president.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent