The right to be indicted by a grand jury in cases of capital and serious offenses is guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Grand jury proceedings have been the focus of national attention this past year. Yet few people across this country understand how a grand jury functions. Further, grand juries vary from state to state in make-up, jurisdiction, and procedure. Here in Massachusetts, grand jury practice strives to maintain the integrity and character of this essential component of our criminal justice system.
The grand jury occupies a unique and historic place in our jurisprudence. See Jones v. Robbins, 8 Gray 329, 342-50 (1857); Commonwealth v. Riley, 73 Mass. App. Ct. 721, 726 (2009). Comprised of citizens who sit independently and in secret, “the grand jury have the dual function of determining whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and of protecting citizens against unfounded criminal prosecutions.” Lataille v. District Ct. of E. Hampden, 366 Mass. 525, 532 (1974). Probable cause is reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed by a certain person. “[A]t the very least the grand jury must hear sufficient evidence to establish the identity of the accused and probable cause to arrest him.” Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 385 Mass. 160, 163 (1982) (citations omitted).
In Massachusetts, the grand jury is comprised of twenty-three citizens. A Superior Court judge, usually assisted by an Assistant District Attorney, empanels a grand jury every three months. In Suffolk County the jury sits four days per week for the entire three months. Though some employers pay for all jury service, most will pay only the required first three days of service after which the State will pay fifty dollars per day. Using individual voir dire, the judge inquires of each potential juror on the issues of hardship and impartiality. Finding fair and impartial grand jurors who can commit to this three month schedule under these financial conditions is difficult, and empanelment usually takes two days. Once twenty-three jurors are chosen, the court will administer the Grand Jury Oath, G.L. c.277, §5. The Judge follows with the traditional instruction explaining briefly the duties and responsibilities of grand jurors, and then remands them to the care of the prosecutor to begin their work.
The District Attorney oversees the presentation of cases to the grand jury. The prosecutor’s unique access to the police and the victims and witnesses of crimes provides a practical avenue to presenting cases in grand jury. The grand jury meets in secret. The witnesses and evidence that come before it are not disclosed to anyone during the pendency of any investigation. In fact, jurors are forever bound by the secrecy requirement. The grand jury serves both a screening and an investigative function. The grand jury will hear cases for which an arrest has been made to determine whether an indictment should issue, and will also conduct complex investigations into alleged crimes for which no arrest has been made. Standard cases range from simple gun and drug possessions to physical assaults and robberies, from sexual assaults and child abuse to shootings and homicides. A case cannot proceed to Superior Court for trial unless a grand jury has returned indictments.
Typically, the Assistant District Attorney will present evidence through the testimony of sworn witnesses, supplemented with physical evidence. All evidence is obtained through grand jury subpoenas. Physical evidence can take many forms: photographs, surveillance video, recorded statements, drug and gun certificates, medical and other business records. All witnesses summoned before the grand jury are entitled to be represented by an attorney. Witnesses who refuse to testify or otherwise assert a privilege will appear with counsel before a judge for a hearing on that issue. If the judge determines that the witness has a valid claim of privilege, the judge will excuse the witness from testifying. Only the grand jurors, the prosecutor, the witness, and a stenographer, lawyer or interpreter are allowed to be present during testimony. All testimony of witnesses is recorded and transcribed into grand jury minutes and these are later provided as part of a discovery package to an indicted defendant.
The evidence required for a grand jury to indict is “considerably less exacting” than the evidence required for a petit jury to find guilt at trial. Commonwealth v. Walczak, 463 Mass. 808, 817 (2012). See also Riley, 73 Mass. App. Ct. at 726. The rules of evidence are relaxed during grand jury presentations. Leading questions are allowed, and hearsay is permissible. Grand jurors have the opportunity to question witnesses. In furtherance of their duties, grand jurors may request the Court to order witnesses or potential targets to provide DNA samples, fingerprints, or even participate in lineup procedures. This evidence assists the jurors in making the ultimate finding of probable cause, and may exculpate or inculpate a potential target. Grand jury practice has developed over time to now afford the grand jurors a fuller and more complete review of the evidence. While once a single police officer may have been sufficient to establish probable cause, the current practice is for grand jurors to hear most of the percipient witnesses and to receive corroborative evidence, and such exculpatory evidence as is available.
The other major role of the Assistant District Attorney is to serve as a legal advisor to the grand jury. See Walczak, 463 Mass. at 823-24, 840-41. Traditionally prosecutors instruct on and explain the law whenever appropriate, necessary, or requested by the grand jurors. Id. The Court, however, does not require instruction unless specifically requested by the grand jury. Commonwealth v. Noble, 429 Mass. 44, 48 (1999). Recently, the Court carved out an exception to this longstanding rule. In cases where the prosecutor seeks to charge a juvenile defendant with murder and where, apart from any claim of lack of criminal responsibility, there exists substantial evidence of mitigating circumstances or defenses — e.g. that the defendant acted in the heat of passion based on reasonable provocation or sudden combat — the prosecutor must instruct the jury on the elements of murder and the legal significance of this evidence on the record. Walczak, 463 Mass. at 809. In Suffolk County, as a case comes before the grand jury for the first time, the prosecutor will define the elements of the potential crimes and applicable legal concepts using standard jury instructions and case law. Once a jury has been instructed on a specific charge or concept, they will receive subsequent instructions as requested or needed. Before voting any charge, the grand jury has received all applicable instructions of law.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the prosecutor will ask the grand jury to vote on a charge or charges. The jurors deliberate in secret, and the prosecutor is not present. For each crime, the jurors must determine if there is probable cause to charge a certain defendant. If the Commonwealth presents sufficient evidence to meet the standard of probable cause, it is the duty of the juror to vote in favor of a true bill or indictment. In order to true bill a charge, twelve or more grand jurors must vote to support the indictment. If fewer than twelve jurors vote to support a charge, the result is a No Bill, that is, no indictment. Although twenty-three members make up a whole grand jury, a minimum of thirteen need be present to have a quorum. In all cases at least twelve jurors must vote to return a true bill or indictment. The foreperson signs the indictments on behalf of the grand jury and returns these indictments to the Court.
Ultimately, the Court oversees and reviews the grand jury process. At any time, the jurors may request instructions from a judge. For the most part, the legal requirements and responsibilities placed on prosecutors in grand jury have been simple and straightforward. In order to sustain an indictment, the evidence presented to the grand jury must establish probable cause. McCarthy, 385 Mass. at 163. The prosecutor also has a duty to uphold the integrity of the grand jury process and provide significant exculpatory or other mitigating evidence that would influence the grand jury’s decision to indict. Commonwealth v O’Dell, 392 Mass. 445, 451 (1984); Commonwealth v. Mayfield, 398 Mass. 615, 621 (1986). Upon meeting these requirements, an indictment will survive most challenges.
The public would be impressed with the commitment demonstrated by the members of the grand jury. From the moment they take their oath to the end of the three months of service, the jurors work hard to be fair and impartial, fulfilling their solemn responsibility to properly charge individuals with crimes and to uphold their obligation to serve and protect the citizens of this Commonwealth.
Linda Poulos is an Assistant District Attorney with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. She has been the grand jury coordinator for the last 15 years.
Not Just the Facts: Commonwealth v. Walczak Tells Prosecutors When to Instruct Grand Juries on the Law in Juvenile Murder CasesPosted: July 10, 2013
by Alex Philipson
In the mid-1920’s, in one of America’s most sensational cases of juvenile homicide, teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb bludgeoned a neighbor to death in Chicago. At about the same time, a thousand miles away in Boston, the Supreme Judicial Court declared that a prosecutor seeking an indictment should, in appropriate instances, do more than present evidence to the grand jury; he should also give advice on the law. See Attorney Gen. v. Pelletier, 240 Mass. 264, 307 (1922). Nearly a century later, the concerns of these seemingly unrelated cases—juvenile murder and grand jury instructions—came together in ways never before seen in Massachusetts.
In Commonwealth v. Walczak, 463 Mass. 808 (2012), in a plurality opinion, the SJC held that a prosecutor must instruct the grand jury on the law in any case where he or she seeks to indict a juvenile for murder, and where there is substantial evidence of mitigating circumstances or defenses other than lack of criminal responsibility. Specifically, the prosecutor has a duty to inform the grand jury of the elements of murder and the significance of mitigating circumstances or defenses for reducing or eliminating the juvenile’s criminal liability—using the model homicide instructions, modified for grand jury proceedings. In no other case had the SJC ever held that a prosecutor was required to instruct the grand jury on the law absent a request from the grand jury. See Commonwealth v. Noble, 429 Mass. 44, 48 (1999).
Unlike Leopold and Loeb, who set out to commit a thrill killing, Walczak had no intention of killing anyone when, embroiled in a fight with two other teenagers, he allegedly stabbed one of them to death. One night in August, 2010, Walczak, then sixteen years old, agreed to meet the victim and another youth on a street corner to sell them marijuana. The purported buyers had actually planned to rob Walczak of his drugs. When the three met, the victim and his friend told Walczak they were going to take his marijuana, and one poked him in the head. Punches were thrown and Walczak stabbed the victim several times in the neck and torso with a knife, killing him.
The Commonwealth sought and obtained an indictment for murder in the second degree. Walczak moved successfully to dismiss the indictment on grounds of insufficient evidence. See Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 385 Mass. 160 (1982). The judge ruled that the Commonwealth had failed to disprove that Walczak acted on reasonable provocation or sudden combat—mitigating circumstances that negate malice and reduce a homicide from murder to voluntary manslaughter—and that, as a matter of law, the evidence supported at most an indictment for manslaughter.
On appeal by the Commonwealth, the SJC unanimously held that the judge erred: the evidence was sufficient to show probable cause for murder in the second degree; the Commonwealth bore no burden to disprove mitigation in the circumstances; and the grand jury was free to believe or disbelieve the evidence of mitigation. Nothing about those conclusions was particularly surprising. The excitement began when the justices considered an alternative ground for affirming the dismissal of the indictment: the Commonwealth’s failure to instruct the grand jury on the legal significance of the evidence of mitigation—i.e., that if someone kills another based on reasonable provocation or during sudden combat the offense would be manslaughter rather than murder. On the need for these instructions the justices differed markedly, but a plurality concluded that the Commonwealth should have given the instructions.
In dissent, Justice Spina, joined by Chief Justice Ireland and Justice Cordy, argued that, regardless whether mitigating circumstances surround a homicide, the Commonwealth has no obligation to instruct on mitigation absent a request from the grand jury. But according to the plurality opinion, at least where there is “substantial” evidence of mitigation—evidence “so strong” that “concealing it would impair the integrity of the grand jury” because the evidence concealed probably would have influenced the grand jury’s decision about what charge, if any, to indict—the legal significance of that mitigating evidence must be explained. Presumably a reviewing court would examine the facts de novo to decide whether the evidence of mitigation was substantial enough to require the instructions, but Walczak is silent on this point.
Justice Gants, in his concurrence, joined by Justices Botsford and Duffly, thought the instructions should be given in all murder cases, juvenile and adult. For him, what made the instructions necessary were “due process” interests not limited to juveniles.
By contrast, Justice Lenk, who wrote her own concurrence, did not speak in terms of due process. Rather, she thought that what necessitated the instructions were “prudential” concerns arising from the special status of adolescents. For example, unlike an adult, a juvenile indicted for manslaughter rather than murder faces trial in Juvenile Court, which affords special protections for adolescents. That difference, and the generally reduced culpability of minors as compared to adults, were the reasons Justice Lenk thought the instructions were required in juvenile murder cases. But the instructions that Justice Lenk thought essential were those concerning such traditional mitigating circumstances as reasonable provocation and sudden combat; she did not say that a grand jury should also be instructed that a juvenile’s youth itself constitutes a mitigating circumstance. (She did think that, in addition to instructions on mitigating circumstances, the grand jury should be told that a juvenile indicted for murder would be tried in Superior Court, but she was alone in that view.) For purposes of resolving Walczak’s case, Justice Lenk, unlike Justice Gants, thought it unnecessary to go so far as to require mitigation instructions (on reasonable provocation and sudden combat) not only for juveniles but for adults too. As the narrower view—requiring the instructions only in juvenile cases—hers prevailed in the plurality opinion.
But this reader, at least, sees no reason why the instructions should not be given in both juvenile and adult cases, as Justice Gants suggested. Although Justice Lenk wanted to ensure that a grand jury would take into account a juvenile’s youth, mitigation and self-defense are not concepts unique to adolescents. Adults can act out of reasonable provocation, sudden combat, or self-defense just as much as adolescents can. Thus, regardless whether the subject of a murder charge is a juvenile or an adult, it would seem fair in either case for the grand jury to be instructed on mitigating circumstances and self-defense, where the evidence warrants it. But the plurality concluded that the instructions are needed only in juvenile cases.
Besides instructions on mitigation and self-defense, Justice Gants suggested that the grand jury “may even be instructed that the prosecution is entitled to an indictment of the crime charged if it is supported by probable cause based on the credible evidence.” Walczak, 463 Mass. at 841. In this way, he agreed with Justice Spina that the grand jury is not permitted simply to choose between murder and manslaughter if credible evidence of the greater offense has been presented. But, as Justice Gants explained, even if the evidence of malice is legally sufficient, the grand jury is still free to decide that the evidence of mitigation is more reliable and return an indictment for the lesser offense.
Questioning the wisdom of the plurality’s view, Justice Spina pointed out that the decision did not address how one may pursue judicial review of a grand jury’s “gatekeeper” decision (i.e., whether the juvenile will be tried in Superior or Juvenile Court) or the applicable standard of review. More fundamentally, Justice Spina saw the plurality’s position as an “improper judicial exercise of the legislative function.” He believed that where the Legislature, in the 1996 Youthful Offender Act, removed power from Juvenile Court judges to determine in which court a juvenile would be tried, it was not up to the SJC to give similar power to the grand jury. Any legislative response to Walczak remains to be seen.
A postscript to this story is worth telling. After the SJC affirmed the dismissal of Walczak’s murder indictment, the Commonwealth returned to the grand jury to present the case again. This time, with the benefit of instructions on the legal significance of the mitigating circumstances, the grand jury indicted Walczak for voluntary manslaughter. As a result, Walczak will be treated as the juvenile he was in August, 2010, when that botched robbery turned tragically into a fatal fight.
Alex G. Philipson is founder of the appellate boutique Philipson Legal, providing appellate representation and consulting services in civil and criminal matters. He was Senior Staff Counsel to the Supreme Judicial Court from 2003 to 2011.