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Leonardo Angiulo: The Importance of an Independent Judiciary

Monday, November 12, 2012


Leonardo Angiulo, GoLocalWorcester Legal Expert

Approximately one week ago the Supreme Judicial Court released findings of an independent auditor who gathered statistics on Jury Waived Trials in District Courts of the Commonwealth. Specifically, the numbers focused on OUI trials conducted by judges, also known as bench trials.

The chief auditor and members of his team present highly impressive resumes in footnotes to the report. Interestingly, their credentials include past service as prosecutors in the State and Federal Courts along with a current White Collar defense practice with a high level of proficiency. In its report, the auditing team collected data and then presented the same in a series of statistics.

The report states that 77% of all OUI cases resolve against the defendant. This means a majority of cases end in a conviction after trial or by an admission of wrongdoing by a defendant. Only 13% of OUI cases result in not guilty verdicts and 10% of cases resolve with dismissals for evidentiary reasons. The report goes on to focus on that percentage of cases going to trial. Some were jury trials and some were bench trials. The report comments on the distinction between a 58% acquittal rate by juries and the 86% acquittal rate by judges.

Now, some important history to the issuance of this report includes a Boston Globe investigation referenced in the report's introduction. During that investigation there were various comments made about the number of acquittals after OUI bench trials. There were interviews with District Attorneys as well as law enforcement from throughout the Commonwealth.

A little over a year later, on November 2, 2012, this report was issued by the Supreme Judicial Court providing quantitative analysis of judicial activity. But, as a review of this report indicates, it's only numbers. What cannot be quantified, ever, is the decision making process that each judge's decision requires. Moreover, for our system of justice to work members of the judicial branch must be free to rule on evidence using impartial discretion. Even when some people don't like the decisions that get made, the constitution requires an independent judiciary.

In fact, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an important case that affirms this very point. Within the body of In re Enforcement of a Subpoena, 463 Mass. 162 (2012) the court stated that members of the judiciary hold a special privilege exempting their bench books and other work papers from subpoena. This privilege is designed to prevent their deliberations from becoming subjects of fear or favor.

From a defense attorney's point of view, if an Assistant District Attorney presents a case that fails to include evidence on any one of the elements required for a conviction of Operating Under the Influence it doesn't matter whether the case goes to a jury or not. If they don't have the evidence the case should result in an acquittal. The way our system works it is the judge's job is to make a ruling, not investigate the case nor be an advocate for one side or the other.

If anything, these rulings reflect a culture that does not permit discretion by officers at roadside and calls out for heightened police activity; for good reason, I might add. While everyone agrees that drunk drivers present a danger, no can reasonably argue there should be a 100% conviction rate for people accused of OUI. Importantly, when it comes to trial day, public sentiment is not an element of the Commonwealth's case. No matter how people feel about drunk driving, a case is only as good as the evidence. A famous quote states “better that ten guilty persons go free than one innocent suffer.” I argue that shouldn't change to “what is the conviction rate for OUIs in Massachusetts?”

Ask any criminal defense attorney and they will tell you the lost nights of sleep when a client is relying on you to make sure justice is done. Anytime a guilty verdict comes down it has a rippling effect on employability, family stability and, sometimes, whether a person wakes up in their own bed or in jail. Those kinds of things don't live in the numbers.


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