In a far-reaching decision, the state’s highest court upheld the dismissal of a murder indictment against a Lynn teenager, reflecting a growing legal consensus that juvenile defendants’ youth makes them less culpable of their crimes.
The ruling sets forth new law, requiring prosecutors to tell grand juries that juveniles indicted on murder charges will be tried as adults, information that might prompt jurors to instead consider lesser charges.
“This allows the grand jury to consider the defendant’s status as a juvenile,” Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in an opinion in the 4-to-3 decision.
Lenk described the required instructions as an added protection for juveniles in a grand jury process that typically favors the government and said they would serve as a gatekeeper between the adult and juvenile justice systems.
“It can fairly be said that the prosecutor holds all the cards before the grand jury,” the court held.
Juvenile advocates praised the ruling, saying the criminal justice system should treat juvenile offenders differently than adults.
“Kids are different than adults,” said Joshua Dohan, who directs the youth advocacy division for the state’s public defender office. “What might be expected behavior of an adult isn’t going to apply exactly” to juveniles.
The ruling drew on a series of recent Supreme Court decisions, notably a June ruling that struck down mandatory life sentences for minors, that have declared harsh penalties against juveniles unconstitutional. The SJC decision noted that while sentences that treat juveniles and adults the same have been struck down, the current process of indicting murder suspects has not been revised to reflect that thinking.
“The decision to indict for murder and bypass the Juvenile Court is now made by the grand jury without taking the defendant’s youth into consideration in any way,” Lenk wrote. “. . . In view of the critical role of the grand jury in these unique circumstances, I think it prudent to factor the defendant’s status as a juvenile into the murder indictment process.”
The case that was considered by the SJC involved a 16-year-old, Javon Walczak, who was accused of stabbing a Medford teenager to death in August 2010.
According to the ruling, Rene Valdez and an accomplice attempted to rob Walczak during a drug transaction, sparking an altercation. Walczak stabbed Valdez 11 times, wounding him in the neck and lung, records state.
A grand jury twice returned indictments against Walczak, and both were dismissed by the same Superior Court judge, the second time for insufficient evidence. The Essex district attorney’s office, which prosecuted, appealed the dismissal.
Walczak’s lawyer, Jonathan Shapiro , called the ruling a landmark.
“It requires substantial, new protections in terms of a prosecutor’s presentation of the case before the grand jury,” he said. “To a large degree, grand jurors are at the mercy of the prosecution . . . . The grand jury has no idea that there are other options.’’
Walczak is free awaiting trial, but must wear a GPS bracelet and abide by follow a curfew. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Essex Superior Court to parse the ruling, Shapiro said.
The district attorney’s office said it is reviewing the decision to determine whether to reindict Walczak.
Shapiro said the ruling raises the possibility that Walczak will be tried as a juvenile and limits the prosecution’s authority in similar cases.
Prosecutors disagreed with that interpretation, saying the requirement would have little impact on their ability to secure indictments against murder suspects.
“We still have the ability to charge juveniles as adults when they commit very serious crimes, and we should,” said Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for Cape Cod and the Islands and president of the state’s district attorneys association.
O’Keefe likened the new requirement to jury instructions given at the end of a trial, and said prosecutors often provide such instructions to grand juries already. He described the directions as “an added protection” that would not substantially change the process.
O’Keefe noted that the SJC unanimously agreed that the evidence before the grand jury supported the second-degree murder indictment.
But four justices said the prosecution should have instructed the grand jury about mitigating circumstances.
Three justices said they did not believe that instructions to the grand jury were necessary in this case.
The complex decision spurred the fractured court to take the unusual step of writing a summary, which noted that even when justices agreed in this case, they did so for different reasons. The differing opinions made it difficult to untangle the legal implications and could lead to other related lawsuits, specialists said.
In a dissent, Justice Francis X. Spina said that when the US Supreme Court established that children are “constitutionally different” from adults when it comes to sentencing, it never suggested any flaw in their prosecution as adults.
The state’s 1996 youthful offender law, which required that juvenile murder suspects be tried as adults, did not trigger any changes to the grand jury process, he noted.
“The Legislature is presumed to have known of the traditional role of the grand jury when it enacted the youthful offender act in 1996, yet it did not expand that role for cases in which a prosecutor seeks to indict a juvenile for murder.”
Clarification: This story about a Supreme Judicial Court decision on juvenile indictments referred imprecisely to Justice Barbara Lenk’s opinion. She did not author the court’s decision. While a majority agreed with Lenk that the trial court’s order dismissing the indictment should be affirmed, Lenk did not speak for a majority of the court on that point. Many of the statements quoted from Lenk’s opinion were her views alone.