BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — They meet in secret and listen to evidence. They travel and examine locations of interest.

And, ultimately, members of a grand jury hold the power to forever change someone’s life, as they did with Trezell and Jacqueline West, the adoptive parents of missing California City boys Orrin and Orson West, by bringing an indictment accusing them of murder.

In most cases, prosecutors directly file criminal charges. Sometimes, however, a grand jury is preferred because the proceedings are confidential. Witnesses can testify privately instead of in an open court, as required at a preliminary hearing.

“They can investigate anything,” said defense attorney Mark Anthony Raimondo. “They have a lot of power and can review anything they want.”

And defense attorneys aren’t present. The grand jury only hears what prosecutors want it to hear, leading to the famous saying, reportedly coined in the 1970s, that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.”

Raimondo has heard that expression, but in his 20 years working in Bakersfield he couldn’t think of a single incident where the District Attorney’s office used a grand jury without having “a very good case.”

Defense lawyer Jared Thompson, however, said there’s a risk in not allowing the defense to cross-examine witnesses or present their own evidence.

“I think the danger of a wrongful accusation is greater with a grand jury,” Thompson said. “A prosecutor has a duty to be objective and show all evidence to a grand jury, but obviously they’re an advocate for one side.”

Raimondo said prosecutors sometimes ask the grand jury to hear cases where it would be a risk to notify the people under investigation because they could pose a flight risk or destroy evidence.

Obtaining a grand jury indictment also allows prosecutors to skip a preliminary hearing and get a case set for trial.

“If they just filed a case and headed to a preliminary hearing with a bunch of defense lawyers it would take forever,” Raimondo said.

It differs by state and even county, but in Kern the grand jury is composed of 19 people, according to the county website. At least 12 jurors must cast an affirmative vote to issue an indictment.

In addition to looking into possible crimes, its members also examine public offices and officers, reporting findings and making recommendations.

For instance, last year the grand jury recommended Delano City Council should be converted from an at-large city council to a district-based city council to better represent its residents. Its report also recommended city council and officials hold team-building meetings.

Sworn to secrecy, grand jury members can’t release any information unless given permission, and their records can’t be inspected or subpoenaed. Typical hours for Kern’s grand jury are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday with meetings held on the 6th floor of Superior Court at 1415 Truxtun Ave.

“All hearings pertaining to criminal cases are conducted in complete secrecy regardless of their outcome,” the county website says.