What is an Indictment?

What is an Indictment?It is hard to miss former President Donald Trump’s name in the news nowadays – with indictments and legal troubles seeming to mount from all sides. With headlines blaring “Mr. Trump indicted,” and “District Attorney Alvin Bragg files indictment against Mr. Trump,” it is easy to get caught up in the legal jargon. So, what exactly is an indictment and why does it matter? In most states, Illinois included, a felony charge is initiated either through a preliminary hearing or through an indictment. Underlying both a preliminary hearing and an indictment is the search for probable cause. In simple terms, probable cause means enough evidence exists to charge the person with a crime. The difference lies in who makes the determination of whether enough probable cause exists.

How a Grand Jury Works

Let’s take Mr. Trump’s case as an example – he is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, a felony charge in New York. District Attorney Alvin Bragg was able to bring charges against the former President through an indictment. An indictment is a process whereby a prosecutor presents evidence to a “grand jury.” A grand jury consists of citizens of a county who are sworn in for a period ranging from a week to months to hear evidence from that county’s prosecutor. The prosecutor may call witnesses including police officers or civilians with knowledge of the alleged crime. The prosecutor can also present additional evidence such as bank records, police reports, or any other relevant evidence. At the close of the prosecutor’s evidence and quite unlike a criminal trial, there is no input from the defendant or the defendant’s attorney. In other words, in Mr. Trump’s case, only District Attorney Bragg’s prosecutors presented evidence.

At the conclusion of evidence, the grand jury will then meet and cast votes in secret to determine whether there is enough evidence, as presented by the prosecutor, to allow a felony charge to move forward against an individual. If the grand jury determines there is enough evidence to proceed, they will issue a “true bill,” giving the prosecutor the OK to move forward. If the grand jury does not believe there is enough evidence to proceed, they will issue what is known as a “no bill,” and the prosecutor can either come back with more evidence, try their luck at a preliminary hearing, or drop the matter. The grand jury’s deliberations, questions, and membership are sealed to the public.

How a Preliminary Hearing Works

An indictment is not the only way that a prosecutor can bring felony charges against an individual. Another means (which is common for less factually complicated cases such as aggravated driving under the influence or driving on a suspended/revoked license) to bring a felony charge is through a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, a prosecutor may call a police officer or civilian witness to testify to their observations or knowledge of whether an individual has committed a crime – like a grand jury hearing evidence. During a preliminary hearing, a judge presides over the case and the accused as well as their lawyer is present in court. The lawyer may make objections to questions asked by prosecutors and may cross-examine the witness that the prosecutor puts on the stand. At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, a judge will rule whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a felony charge. Like an indictment, if a judge determines there is not enough evidence to proceed, the prosecutor can then take the case before a grand jury and attempt to move forward in that manner.

How Trump was Indicted

In Mr. Trump’s case, the District Attorney’s Office was able to persuade the grand jury there was enough evidence to move forward with the 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. The indictment against Mr. Trump stems from allegations that during August 2015 to December 2017, Mr. Trump had schemed to purchase potentially negative information about himself and suppress the information from the media. While District Attorney Bragg’s “statement of facts” is an unusual move, as most prosecutors do not publish a statement of facts after securing an indictment, it is quite illustrative of the allegations facing Mr. Trump. The main contention and one most of us are familiar with is the allegation that Mr. Trump directed his attorney, Mr. Michael Cohen, to direct “hush money” payments to adult actress Stormy Daniels. Mr. Bragg’s office alleges the Editor-in-Chief of the National Enquirer became aware Ms. Daniels was making claims she had a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump while he was married.

What is Catch and Kill?

The Editor-in-Chief of the National Enquirer then contacted Mr. Cohen to inform him about the potential of this story breaking. According to Mr. Bragg’s Office, Mr. Cohen then contact Mr. Trump to inquire about how Mr. Trump would like to proceed based on these allegations. Mr. Trump then allegedly directed Mr. Cohen to make a payment in the amount of $130,000 in exchange for the rights to Ms. Daniels’s story, a practice often referred to as “Catch and Kill”.  At the center of Mr. Bragg’s allegations is Mr. Trump not wanting to pay Ms. Daniels directly, for obvious reasons, and directing Mr. Cohen to open a shell company to pay out Ms. Daniels. Mr. Cohen did create that shell company, in New York, under the name “Essential Consultants LLC,” which he then used to pay off Ms. Daniels. In return, as Mr. Bragg alleges, Mr. Trump – while serving as President – arranged to reimburse Mr. Cohen through payments labeled legal services and paid for by the Trump organization.

In essence, Mr. Bragg claims Mr. Trump’s payments for “legal services,” were in fact reimbursements for the monies spent by Mr. Cohen to purchase the rights to Ms. Daniels’s story. Perhaps most troubling for Mr. Trump and his legal defense is the fact that Mr. Cohen and the media corporation who owns the National Enquirer have both admitted guilt in connection with the payments to Ms. Daniels. What ultimately happens with Mr. Trump’s case is anyone’s guess; however, Mr. Bragg’s office has cleared its first major hurdle.

Contact Us for a Free Consultation

Whether a preliminary hearing or an indictment, the felony trial process can be daunting. That is why it is crucial that you reach out to an experienced attorney who can guide you through the process whether your case is criminal or traffic based. Contact the Chicago defense attorneys of Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC anytime at (312) 644-0444 to set up a free consultation.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : May 12, 2023