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The Grand Jury is a uniquely Anglo-American institution, tracing its creation over 800 years ago to the Assize of Claredon, a decree issued by the King of England in 1166 and also to the Constitution of Claredon, an agreement between the Church and the Crown made in 1166. Both documents changed the way criminal charges were made. Prior to these documents, injured parties in the baronial courts or informants in Bishop's courts could initiate charges. The newly formed grand juries consisted of sixteen men who would hear the evidence and make a decision as to whether formal charges should be made. Once formal charges were made by the initial grand juries, trial was limited to trial by ordeal under this system, a person was found innocent only if he survived a physical ordeal such as putting a hand into a flame and passing the test by not being burned. With such trials, accusation by a grand jury was tantamount to a finding of guilty.

By the seventeenth century, petit or trial juries, such as exist in our courts today, replaced trial by ordeal. By the time grand juries came to this State, trial by jury was the custom.

Middlesex County was originally populated by Swedish and Dutch settlers in the 1660's. They were soon followed by English colonists from the New England colonies and Long Island. The first organized settlements were built by these English colonists who, by 1682, under the aegis of the New Jersey Assembly, created Middlesex County as one of four original New Jersey Counties. The only two townships in Middlesex County at that time were Woodbridge and Piscataway. Woodbridge had 600 residents at that time.

By June 19, 1683, the first County Court was held at Piscataway. It sat alternately in Piscataway and Woodbridge until 1688 when Perth Amboy was added as one of the three alternate sites. In 1778 New Brunswick became the most prime town in the county and at that time the Middlesex County Courts were transferred there.

The first Middlesex County Grand Jury was empaneled at Woodbridge on September 16, 1684. As in England of the 12th century, the jury consisted of male citizens. They were:

Ephemis Andros Thomas Higgins
Israell Thomill Rehoboth Gannet
Isacke Tappin Nicholas Munday
Obediah Harris John Langstafe
John Adams Andrew Wooden
Nathaniell Bloomfield John Drake
John Jones Richard Smith
Josiah Higgins Richard Smith, Jr.
Hugh Dunn

 

The minutes of the County Court, June 1683-September 1720 indicated the first case heard involved Joseph Travell and James Stuart who were indicted for breaking the "gaol" at Woodbridge. A petit jury heard the case and returned a finding of guilty on the same date wherein a sentence was pronounced. Stuart and Travell were ordered back, from where they came, after being administered forty lashes on the bare back with a whip of three cords. Gaol is an English form of the word jail. These men apparently escaped from the Woodbridge jail.

Other offenses are more recognizable. On September 16, 1684 Philip Gunter was indicted and found guilty of feloniously taking a Zith Smash with Nibs, heeling , and wedges to the value of four shillings. His sentence was to pay double the value to the victim plus court charges. Then, as now, theft was a common crime, with two other cases of this nature heard on September 16th, each defendant being similarity sentenced.

At the same Court meeting. William Ingle was charged with breech of his Majesty's peace and sentenced to be set in stocks by ye Constable of ye Towne of Woodbridge and to remain there two hours without relief. On the same date , Matthew Moore was indicted and found guilty of reproachful words against authority. He was ordered to pay three pounds current money of this province to be taken by distress if payment was denied, by levy of the high sheriff.

Though John Thompson, the slave of Daniel Hooper, was indicted for selling rum to the Indians and making them drunk, he was found not guilty by the trial jury. Court costs were nevertheless still charged the defendant.

Today's charges and sentences differ to some extent, and the Minute Book of 1683 - 1729 contained in the Rutgers Archives has been replaced by computer generated Grand Jury minute sheets. The Grand Jurors of today stand together with Englishmen of the 12th century and American colonists of the 17th century as society's accusatory body separating those that should face formal criminal trial and those that should not.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office presents cases to three full time Grand Juries that sit throughout the entire course of the year. The membership of the Grand Jury is changed every four months. Once an indictment has been returned on a matter, the case is ready for trial and subsequently will be handled by one of trial teams that staff the criminal courts. In addition to the regular criminal courts, the Prosecutor's Office staffs the juvenile court and other courts trying special cases.