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Supreme Judicial Court Declines to Vacate Indictment Due to Commonwealth’s Failure to Provide Jury Instructions on Mitigating Evidence Presented

balance-1172800-1-300x204In Commonwealth v. Fernandes, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated the dismissal of the murder indictment against the adult defendant on the grounds that, contrary to the judge’s ruling, “the Commonwealth’s failure to provide instructions to the grand jury regarding the significance of the mitigating evidence it presented” did not impair the integrity of the grand jury process.

The background was as follows. The defendant stabbed her fiancé, cutting his carotid artery. The Commonwealth presented evidence to the grand jury “that the defendant and the victim were fighting just prior to the stabbing,” and that the defendant had manifested a “violent temper and controlling behavior toward — and physical abuse of — the victim” during their relationship, “including a prior occasion [on] which the defendant stabbed the victim.” “The Commonwealth also presented [to the grand jury] substantial evidence that could have been seen as exculpatory, comprising testimony from witnesses who observed bruises on the defendant, including on the night of the killing; statements from the defendant regarding the victim’s abusive behavior toward her during their relationship; and the defendant’s statement that she acted in self-defense.” The grand jury indicted the defendant for murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The defendant filed a motion “to dismiss the murder charge, arguing … that the Commonwealth had failed to provide the grand jury with instructions regarding the mitigating circumstances that it presented.” The judge “allowed the motion, concluding that although there was probable cause to return an indictment for murder, the Commonwealth’s failure to provide instructions on the mitigating factors impaired the integrity of the grand jury proceedings.” The Commonwealth appealed.

In its decision, the SJC stated, “[I]n Commonwealth v. Walczak, 463 Mass. 808 (2012), we held that where the Commonwealth seeks to indict a juvenile for murder, and substantial evidence of mitigating circumstances or defenses (other than lack of criminal responsibility) is presented to a grand jury, the Commonwealth must instruct the grand jury on the elements of murder and on the legal significance of those mitigating circumstances or defenses…. We are called on in this case to determine whether the Commonwealth’s failure to provide [such] instructions to the grand jury … requires dismissal of [a murder] indictment against an adult.” “As reflected in this plurality opinion and in the [three] separate opinions that follow, six Justices are of the view that it is generally advisable for prosecutors to instruct grand juries on the elements of lesser offenses and defenses whenever such instructions would help the grand jury to understand the legal significance of mitigating circumstances and defenses. The Justices disagree, however, as to the consequences of failing to provide such instructions. The three Justices who subscribe to this plurality opinion would hold that the integrity of a grand jury is impaired, and the dismissal of an indictment due to the lack of instructions is therefore appropriate, … only where the exculpatory evidence presented to the grand jury was so compelling that giving instructions on that evidence probably would have resulted in the grand jury returning a no bill. Two Justices … would hold that a prosecutor’s failure to give a grand jury appropriate instructions on mitigating circumstances and defenses ought to result in the dismissal of an indictment if the absence of instructions probably influenced the grand jury’s decision to return an indictment for murder as opposed to manslaughter or a no bill. Two other Justices … would hold that the integrity of a grand jury is impaired by a prosecutor’s failure to give instructions … only if and when the facts known to the prosecutor clearly establish that the instruction would result in a complete exoneration, yet the prosecutor withholds appropriate instructions.” In all, “five Justices … agree that, here, the indictment should not have been dismissed.” The Court noted that “as a matter of best practices, instructions on both defenses and mitigating circumstances should be provided to grand juries, including instructions that might possibly affect the decision whether to indict for manslaughter as opposed to murder…. However, the operative question on a motion to dismiss an indictment is whether the integrity of the grand jury proceedings has been impaired, not whether a prosecutor has conformed to the best practices, and the question whether the proceedings have been impaired is determined only by asking whether, had there been appropriate instructions, the grand jury would have returned no indictment at all.”

Although the ultimate result in this case is disappointing, the fact that the prosecutor’s conduct was challenged, and that the court specifically stated that the prosecutor did not conform to best practices, is encouraging and may result in a different outcome in the future. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a former prosecutor, and has been practicing criminal defense for many years. He knows the ins and outs of both sides of the courtroom and will make sure that the Commonwealth’s conduct is properly held in check and challenged whenever appropriate, so that his clients get the best outcome possible. Call him for a free consultation today.

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