Defining common terms used around the courtroom

Grand juries are in the news. Robert Mueller, a special counsel looking into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to tamper with the 2016 election, is said to have convened at least one grand jury.

ABC News and Law Street have posted convenient guides discussing the legal aspect of what grand juries can and cannot do. We, of course, are concerned with the linguistic aspects.

Take care when describing the actions of grand juries. They can indict someone, signing what is called a “true bill” that there is reasonable evidence that the accused committed the crime at issue. Remember that defendants rarely appear before grand juries, and the only evidence presented is what prosecutors give them or guide them to collect, so they are pretty one-sided proceedings.

Even so, a prosecutor decides whether to press charges as a result of the indictment. The prosecutor can decide not to bring charges; the most famous case of an indictment that did not result in a charge may be in the killing of JonBenet Ramsey. A court determines whether there is enough evidence to continue to trial. So just because a grand jury returns an “indictment” does not mean there will be a trial.

Because an indictment is not a charge, it’s inaccurate to say that someone was “indicted for” a crime. As the AP Stylebook says, “To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use phrases such as indicted for killing or indicted for bribery. Instead, use indicted on a charge of killing or indicted on a bribery charge.” You could also say the “indictment accuses the suspect of” the crime.

In the federal system, an “indictment” is necessary for any criminal charge, but states vary on whether they require indictments. In states that don’t use grand juries for every criminal proceeding, a prosecutor files an “information” with the court that lists the basis for any criminal charge. (In some places, the prosecutor is called a “state’s attorney”—not a “state attorney,” a “states attorney,” or a “states’ attorney.”) So be sure that there’s actually an “indictment” before you write about one. And only grand juries can “indict.”

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When the grand jury decides on an indictment, it technically “returns” it to the prosecutor. Many news accounts say that the indictment was “handed down” or “handed up.” Only one of those is accurate: A grand jury is low on the judicial food chain, so its indictment is handed “up,” to the prosecution, a judge, and the court system. The judge or court “hands down” a decision from the bench, the highest seat in the courtroom.

But let’s go back to the beginning. A grand jury is put together from a group of citizens. That creates a “panel.”

Is that act spelled “impaneled,” “empaneled,” “impanelled,” or “empanelled”?

That word leaped to the top of Merriam-Webster’s online lookups right after the news of the Mueller grand jury broke, and M-W has the best answer on the “correct” spelling:
“so long as you throw together some assembly of ems or ims with some verb endings you have a better than average chance of spelling it correctly.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one favored by many news organizations, prefers “impaneled,” but lists all the others as possible variations. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has a single word entry, “impanel,” but given its preference for “canceled” and “traveled,” probably wants “impaneled.” The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t list “impanel” at all, but says this about double consonants: “In words of more than one syllable, the final consonant is doubled if it is part of the syllable that is stressed both before and after the inflection {prefer–preferred} but not otherwise {travel–traveled}. In British English there is no such distinction: All such consonants are doubled.” The New Yorker, with its British-leaning style guide, prefers “impanelled.”

The form of grand jury we use today traces to the Saxons and, later, the Normans in Britain. The word describing its assembly comes from the Middle English word “empanelle,” which itself comes from the French “empaneler,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. It took only about 150 years for the “e” to become an “i” (1426 to 1577, the OED says).

By reading this column, you can avoid being indicted on charges of using bad language.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.