Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Confirms Grand Jury Proceedings are Largely Useless

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a superior court judge’s decision to dismiss indictments that were obtained when the Commonwealth presented nothing other than hearsay testimony to the grand jury.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Stevenson

In October of 2014, the Dukes County Grand Jury returned a six-count indictment against the defendant, charging him with aggravated rape of a child with force and five counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14.  The alleged offenses occurred more than a decade earlier, when the complaining witness worked as a babysitter for the defendant’s children.  According to the complaining witness, from 2000 until 2003, the defendant made inappropriate comments toward her, groped her, and digitally raped her.  Around the time of the alleged offenses, the complaining witness told a high school friend but nobody else.  More recently, the complaining witness disclosed the alleged abuse to her boyfriend, who reported the allegations to the police.  Tisbury Police Detective Mark Santon interviewed the complaining witness and her parents.

Following his investigation, Detective Santon testified before the grand jury.  He was the only witness.  He testified about what the complaining witness and her parents had told him.  He also testified that he had followed up with the complaining witness’ high school friend who had received the complaining witness’ initial disclosure.  After the prosecutor finished asking Detective Santon questions, the grand jurors expressed skepticism in the Commonwealth’s case.  One juror asked, “[s]o, just to be clear, this is the entire body of evidence?”  Another juror asked why there was not a prior police investigation and a third juror questioned if there was any other corroborating evidence.  Nevertheless, the grand jury voted to indict the defendant.

The defendant moved to dismiss the indictments, arguing that the Commonwealth’s decision to present its entire case through the hearsay testimony of the investigating officer impaired the function of the grand jury.  A superior court judge agreed and dismissed the indictments.  The judge ruled that the use of hearsay as the only evidence “destroys the historical function of the grand jury in assessing the likelihood of prosecutorial success and diminishes the protections that the grand jury is supposed to afford to the innocent.”  The Commonwealth appealed the judge’s dismissal of the indictments and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The Court pointed out that grand juries in Massachusetts have been entitled to rely solely on hearsay for more than 100 years, and there was no suggestion that the prosecutor in this case introduced false testimony or otherwise committed misconduct that would justify dismissing the indictments.  And while the Court noted it has previously said that “sound policy dictates a preference for the use of direct testimony before grand juries,” it then concluded that using only hearsay in this case did not impair the integrity of the grand jury proceedings.

While the SJC’s decision today is supported by many years of caselaw, it also illustrates that the grand jury in Massachusetts is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the prosecutor.  The quality of the evidence is often laughable, the rules of evidence are non-existent, and even the admission of testimony that is later proven to be false will not justify the dismissal of the indictments as long as the testimony was given in “good faith.”  In theory, grand juries provide a gatekeeper function to prevent the Commonwealth’s weakest cases from getting into court.  In practice, the rules governing grand juries in Massachusetts make the proceedings themselves a waste of time.