Grand Jury’s Discretion: Prosecution’s Claims That Defense Requested Witness Was Not Relevant Did Not Undermine Grand Jury’s Discretion.
People v. Thompson
22 N.Y.3d 687 2014
New York Court of Appeals
Decided on: April 20, 2011
Summary: Defendant was arrested for the murder of Rasheem Williams. During the second grand jury proceeding, the Defendant told the jury that there was a missing female eyewitness that he wanted to call to the stand. The Prosecutor contended and told the Grand Jury that the testimony was not relevant at that time. Defendant argued, stating that the Prosecutor had undermined the Grand Jury’s discretion in making their own decision to hear the witnesses. The jury subsequently voted not to hear the witness and Defendant was convicted. The Court of Appeals held that, although the Prosecution’s remarks towards Defendant’s choice of a witness were forcefully made, there was nothing impermissible about her suggestion that the potential witness had no relevant testimony to offer. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Issue: Whether a Prosecutor’s remarks on rejecting a Defendant’s choice of witness caused the Grand Jury to lose their independence and impaired the integrity of the proceedings.
Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the Prosecution’s remarks on rejecting Defendant’s request to call a witness of his choice did not undermine the Grand Jury’s independence to such an extent as to impair the integrity of the Grand Jury in their own decision to hear or not to hear the witness.
CPL 190.50 grants the Grand Jury the power to subpoena witnesses, including witnesses not called by the People, and the Prosecutor must comply with the grand jury’s order for such testimony. If the Grand Jury asks to hear from a witness, the Prosecutor has no recourse to prevent the witness from appearing, save for motion for an order vacating or modifying their subpoena on the ground that such is in the public interest. In addition, the Defendant may specifically ask the Grand Jury to exercise its power to call a witness of his or her selection, and the Grand Jury may, as a matter of discretion, grant such request and cause such witness to be called.
Facts: Defendant was arrested for the murder of Rasheem Williams. At the first Grand Jury proceeding, the Grand Jury dismissed the weapons charged against Defendant. At the second Grand Jury proceeding, the Defendant told the Grand Jury that there was a missing female eyewitness. The Prosecutor told the Grand Jury, the testimony would not be relevant. Defendant argued that the Prosecution impaired the proceedings and undermined the Grand Jury’s own decision to hear or not to hear the witness. The Court of Appeals held that, although the Prosecutor’s remarks towards Defendants’ choice of a witness were forceful, she did not undermine the Grand Jury’s independence to such an extent as to impair the integrity of the proceeding. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor’s denial of Defendant’s request for a witness did not cause the Grand Jury to lose their own discretion to decide whether or not they wanted to hear from the witness. CPL article 190 governs the conduct of the Grand Jury and the parties that appear before that body, and it requires that all Grand Jury proceedings remain secret to protect the essential functions of those various actors, CPL 190.25 (4). Under this statuary regime, the exclusive legal advisors of the Grand Jury are the court and the District Attorney, CPL190.25 (6). Their decision to present certain items of evidence and to exclude others is for the most part limited only by the rules of evidence applicable at trial. The Prosecutor enjoys broad powers and duties, as well as wide discretion in presenting the People’s case to the Grand Jury. The Prosecutor determines the competency of witnesses to testify, and he or she must instruct the Grand Jury on the legal significance of the evidence. The Prosecutor need not only seek convictions, but also to see that justice is done.
In the alternative, the Prosecutor cannot provide an inaccurate and misleading answer to the Grand Jury’s legitimate inquiry, nor can the Prosecutor accept an indictment that he or she knows to be based on false, misleading or legally insufficient evidence. That being so, the Prosecutor can not tread too lightly in pressing the People’s case or rebutting the Defendant’s assertions.
In this case, the Defendant told the Grand Jury that there was a missing female eyewitness to the shooting. The lead Prosecutor asked Defendant how he knew of the witness in light of his denial that he was at the scene of the crime when it occurred. The Grand Jury did ask if they could hear the witness’s testimony but the Prosecutor stated that the proposed evidence was not relevant at that time. As the Grand Jury began to question the Prosecutor, the lead Prosecutor admitted that she knew the nature of the witness’s potential testimony based upon the People’s investigation and interviews of her. The Prosecutor than instructed the Grand Jury that the witness would be subpoenaed if twelve or more of the Grand Jury voted on it. The Grand Jury voted on Defendant’s request for the witness’s testimony and subsequently rejected it.
The Court of Appeals held that the lead Prosecutor did forcefully contend that the witness’s testimony would be irrelevant. She also told the Grand Jury that they had to take her advice on that subject because she was their legal advisor. However, the Court of Appeals held that there was nothing inherently impermissible about the Prosecutor’s suggestion that the potential witness had no relevant testimony to offer. Furthermore, although the Prosecutor should not have overstated her argument, she made a valid point. Defendant’s description of the witness and the potential testimony did not provide an exact identification of the witness by name, or clearly convey what the witness might say other than that she was present at the scene of the crime.
The Court of Appeals held that the Grand Jury has the right to call a witness based the relevance of the witness’s testimony. The Prosecutor acknowledged to the Grand Jury that the decision to call or exclude the witness rested with them. Given those accurate instructions, the Prosecutor’s argument that the proposed testimony was irrelevant could not have misled the Grand Jury into believing that they had no choice but to agree with her. Because the Grand Jury fully exercised their independent decision-making authority over the course of the entire proceeding, there is no reason to believe that the Prosecutor’s statements about Defendant’s request cowed the Grand Jury into abandoning their independence. Accordingly, the integrity of the Grand Jury proceeding remained intact, and the trial court properly denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.