Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Murder Conviction Despite Grand Jury Improprieties

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the murder conviction of a man who stabbed to death a Fall River woman in 2005.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Holley

The victim was a 23-year-old resident of a Fall River housing complex at the time of her death.  She allegedly owed money to a woman who was dating the defendant’s brother.  On the date of the victim’s murder, the defendant was seen around the apartment complex and showed at least three people a large knife he was carrying (and had used to threaten some of the other apartment building’s residents).  Shortly after 9:00 p.m., witnesses saw the victim walking toward her unit being followed by a black man wearing a hoodie (a description that matched the defendant).  Shortly thereafter, neighbors heard loud music being played in the victim’s apartment.  When smoke was seen coming from the apartment, firefighters responded and discovered the victim’s body, which had been stabbed and cut by a knife 53 times.  Bloody footprints found at the murder scene matched a pair of shoes owned by the defendant.  Five days after the killing, the police interviewed the defendant and noticed a cut on his hand.  After providing Miranda warnings to the defendant, the police asked him where he had been the day the victim was murdered.  The defendant lied about having been present at the apartment complex (he was seen by multiple witnesses).  He also denied having had sex with the victim the day she died (DNA evidence established the defendant and the victim did have sex shortly before her death).  The District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the defendant for several years, as the evidence against the defendant was circumstantial (and weak).  However, the DA’s Office finally presented its case to a grand jury, obtained an indictment, and convicted the defendant of first-degree murder at trial.  The defendant appealed.

The defendant’s most interesting appellate argument had nothing at all to do with the trial.  The defendant challenged the prosecutor’s conduct during the grand jury proceeding.  In Massachusetts, grand jury proceedings are secret.  Witnesses testify one at a time, and typically nobody other than the witness, the prosecutor, the stenographer, and the members of the grand jury are allowed inside the grand jury room.  In an unbelievable breach of protocol, the prosecutor in this case allowed two police officers (both of whom testified before the grand jury) to remain present in the grand jury room for most, if not all, of the other witnesses’ testimony.  On appeal, the District Attorney’s Office conceded the officers’ presence was improper.  The Supreme Judicial Court noted the importance of secrecy in grand jury proceedings in order to protect the grand jurors and witnesses from outside influences.  A reluctant witness might decide to alter his testimony if two police officers are standing in the room staring at him during his examination.  It’s hard to imagine why a prosecutor would allow police officers to watch grand jury testimony for any reason other than to intimidate witnesses.  Nevertheless, despite agreeing with the defendant that the officers’ presence in the grand jury room was improper, the SJC concluded the defendant did not suffer a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice (which was his burden on appeal).  Therefore, the defendant’s conviction was upheld and his sentence of life without parole was left intact.

The grand jury in Massachusetts (and in most jurisdictions) is a joke.  Prosecutors can obtain indictments on the flimsiest of evidence, and even where mistakes are made during the grand jury proceedings (including when witnesses provide false evidence leading to the indictment), appellate courts almost never reverse convictions as a result.  From a defense perspective, grand jury hearings are beneficial in one way – the testimony of the witnesses is recorded and a transcript is provided to the defendant’s attorney prior to trial.  Therefore, if a Commonwealth witness testifies differently at trial than he testified before the grand jury, the defense attorney has an effective avenue of impeachment.