EXCULPATORY EVIDENCE AND THE GRAND JURY

 EXCULPATORY EVIDENCE AND THE GRAND JURY
 

On the evening of June 7, 2009 the defendant, Jose Hernandez, shot and killed Robert Plaza as Plaza sat in his motor vehicle in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After disposing of the murder weapon with the help of an accomplice, the defendant fled to Connecticut where eventually he was arrested and subsequently convicted of first-degree murder.

On the advice of his counsel, he appealed both his conviction and a denied motion for a new trial up to the Supreme Judicial Court. More specifically, the defendant challenged the denial of his motion to dismiss his indictment and certain evidentiary rulings by the trial judge. He also appealed from the denial of his motion for a new trial based on newly discovered and improperly withheld evidence. Lastly, the defendant asked the court to reduce his verdict to manslaughter.

The defendant made arguments in his defense proceeding as follows:

  • That information from a confidential informant should have been presented to the grand jury as exculpatory evidence
  • That the judge improperly curtailed the defendant’s cross-examination of an accomplice who hid the murder weapon
  • That the defendant was denied a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense of his argument that he killed the victim in self-defense because the judge curtailed testimony from a key witness
  • That the defendant’s motion for a new trial was unduly rejected because an expert called to testify with work-related performance issues raised doubt as to the accuracy and the reliability of evidence collection

The Court ruled that regarding the matter of the confidential informant, that “’[p]rosecutors are not required in every instance to reveal all exculpatory evidence to a grand jury” and that the instance of the information obtained from the informant constituted such a legally permissible exception. The Court reasoned that there was not sufficient reason to believe that the information would “’greatly undermine either the credibility of an important witness or evidence likely to affect the grand jury’s decision’” or that the information would “’[cause] the presentation to be so ‘seriously tainted,’ that the prosecutor…[would need to] present such evidence to the grand jury”.

The Court determined on the issue of the cross-examination that the defendant had ample opportunity to explore fully the accomplice’s motivation to eventually cooperate with the government in capturing the defendant in Connecticut through both cross- and recross-examination.

 

On the issue of testimony from the key witness being curtailed by sustained objections, the court also disagreed with the defense. It argued that the sustaining of the objections in question were justified by the judge’s evident care to ensure that the witness did not answer general questions about how a person reacts when suffering from heroin withdrawal.

The Court ruled on the issue of the motion for a new trial that although information regarding the expert’s failed proficiency tests should have been disclosed as exculpatory evidence, the motion judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion for a new trial. The court also determined that there were no grounds for issue over the non-disclosure of exculpatory evidence as well as the effects from non-disclosure.

In the end, the Court affirmed the judgment in question as well as the order denying the motion for a new trial.

IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CRIME, AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.

 CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.

Source: Commonwealth vs. Jose Hernandez, SJC—11467

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