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SJC Affirms Denial of New Trial for Target of Grand Jury Investigation, Despite Lack of 5thAmendment Warning by Commonwealth

shhhh-1433634-225x300In Commonwealth v. Woods, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for a new trial.  The Court ruled that even if the defendant was a target of the grand jury investigation in this case, the Commonwealth was not obligated to warn him as to that status or to inform him of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The background was as follows. “In 2009, the defendant was convicted of murder in the first degree…. On direct appeal, he challenged the admission of his grand jury testimony …[,] arguing that it was illegally obtained, because he was not informed before testifying either that he was a target of a grand jury investigation, or that he had a right against self-incrimination. [In response, the SJC] concluded that the trial judge did not err in finding that the defendant was not a target of the grand jury … and affirmed his conviction. See Commonwealthv. Woods, 466 Mass. 707, 709, 716-720, cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 2855 (2014) (Woods I).” The Court “added that ‘[e]ven if the defendant were a “target,” the Commonwealth was under no obligation to warn him of that status’ under Federal or State law. Id.[, 466 Mass.] at 717.” “[T]he Court also announced a prospective [nonconstitutional] rule, pursuant to its superintendence authority, requiring that grand jury witnesses who are targets or likely targets of a criminal investigation be given self-incrimination warnings before testifying…. Following Woods I, the defendant moved for a new trial, contending that facts not before the trial judge or this court during his direct appeal establish that the defendant was a target of a grand jury investigation; accordingly, the defendant argued, his grand jury testimony was improperly admitted, and he deserved a new trial. The motion judge, who was not the trial judge, disagreed, concluding that although the new facts raised in the defendant’s motion establish that he was a target of the investigation, [the SJC’s] holding in Woods I‘was not dependent on the finding that the defendant was not a target.’ The defendant then filed a petition before a single justice of the [SJC] pursuant to G.L. c.278, §33E, asking that his appeal from the denial of his motion be considered by the full Court. The single justice granted the petition.”

In its decision, the SJC stated, “[T]he language of Woods I makes clear that the … judge was correct” in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial. “On direct appeal, the defendant raised the very same legal argument that he puts before us now: because he was a target of the grand jury, he was entitled to self-incrimination warnings. [We] specified in Woods I, 466 Mass. at 717, that ‘[e]ven if the defendant were a “target,”the Commonwealth was under no obligation to warn him of that status’ (emphasis added). Likewise, addressing ‘the defendant’s separate argument’ regarding self-incrimination warnings, [we] acknowledged that [we were] considering the issue ‘for the first time’ — meaning that nothing prior to Woods Irequired self-incrimination warnings as a matter of law. Id. at 717-718. In other words, just as the Commonwealth was under no obligation to warn the defendant of his target status, even if he were a target, so too was the Commonwealth under no obligation at that time to advise the defendant of his right against self-incrimination. [We] adopted that very requirement in the defendant’s case, and stated that it was to apply only prospectively…. Thus, irrespective of the defendant’s target status, he was not entitled to the new rule.” In short, stated the Court, “We decline to grant the defendant a new trial on collateral review based on an alleged violation of a right that simply did not exist at the time of his trial.”

Although the Court’s ruling is not beneficial to the defendant in this case, the decision is a good one for defendant’s moving forward, as it establish the requirement that the Commonwealth apprise a grand jury witness of his target status moving forward.  If you or a loved one has been summonsed to the grand jury to testify, it is of critical importance that you have an experienced attorney who is well versed in the law to represent you and make sure that your testimony – or refusal to testify – does not cause you future harm.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is such an attorney.  Call him for a free consultation today.