Supreme Judicial Court, December 12, 2012

"In future cases, where the Commonwealth seeks to indict a juvenile for murder and where there is substantial evidence of mitigating circumstances or defenses (other than lack of criminal responsibility) presented to the grand jury, the prosecutor shall instruct the grand jury on the elements of murder and on the significance of the mitigating circumstances and defenses. The instructions are to be transcribed as part of the transcription of the grand jury proceedings.”

At two separate grand jury presentments, the Commonwealth presented evidence that on August 9, 2010, the defendant fatally stabbed the victim in an altercation that began when the victim and his friend attempted to rob the defendant.  The defendant was sixteen years of age at the time of the offense.  

A Superior Court judge dismissed a second-degree indictment after ruling that the prosecutor had not disclosed potentially exculpatory evidence to the grand jury.  Rather than appeal the dismissal, the Commonwealth chose to present the case again, to a second grand jury, which returned an indictment for second-degree murder.  The same judge dismissed this indictment, after ruling that the evidence was insufficient to support the indictment.  The Commonwealth appealed the order dismissing the indictment, and the SJC granted the defendant’s application for direct appellate review.

In the decision, all of the Justices concurred that there was sufficient evidence presented at grand jury to indict the defendant for murder in the second degree.  However, a majority agreed that the indictments still needed to be dismissed because “the grand jury should have been, but were not, instructed by the prosecutor on the elements of murder and on the legal significance of the mitigating circumstances raised by the evidence.” 

Justice Lenk’s opinion considered the role the grand jury plays in juvenile murder cases in taking the case out of Juvenile Court and bringing it to Superior Court, that mitigating evidence presented to a grand jury is meaningless unless the grand jury is provided with guidance to understand its legal significance and recent jurisprudence in cases such as Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012).  Justice Lenk held that “[i]n light of the significant interests that would be served, I conclude that a presentment in which the Commonwealth seeks to indict a juvenile for murder constitutes an ‘appropriate instance[]’ in which legal instructions to a grand jury are required.  In these limited circumstances, the grand jury must be instructed as to the elements of the degree of murder for which an indictment is sought, as well as any defenses or mitigating circumstances that are raised by the evidence.” 

In a concurring opinion, Justice Gant, joined by Justice Botsford and Justice Duffly, suggested that the Commonwealth offer these instructions not only in juvenile murder cases, but in any murder case presented to the grand jury.  This was not a majority opinion; therefore, currently, the Commonwealth is only obligated to provide these instructions when seeking to indict a juvenile for murder.