WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors trying to persuade a grand jury to issue criminal charges may hold back evidence that shows the suspect committed no crime, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday.
In a decision that the dissenting justices said would allow grand jurors to be "intentionally misled" into issuing "wrongful" indictments, the majority declared that federal courts have no power to define the proper conduct of prosecutors in dealing with grand juries.
Since grand jurors have no binding duty to consider evidence that would be favorable to the target of an investigation, "we do not understand how the prosecutor can be said to have a binding obligation to present it," the majority declared in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia.
If Congress wants to limit the way prosecutors carry on their part in grand jury probes, it is free to do so, the majority said, but federal judges cannot do that because they have only "a very limited" authority to fashion procedures before the juries.
Grand juries are different from trial juries. Under the Fifth Amendment, only a grand jury has power to charge an individual with a serious federal crime. The grand jury has sweeping power to investigate possible crimes before indicting. Once it issues charges, the case may go to court before a separate trial jury.
The Supreme Court ruled 29 years ago, in Brady vs. Maryland, that when prosecutors know favorable things about someone facing a criminal trial, they have a constitutional duty to reveal that knowledge before the trial upon request by the defense.
The new ruling, in the case of United States vs. Williams, deals with the situation before criminal charges have emerged, when a grand jury is still investigating. It was one of two significant criminal law rulings that a closely divided court issued yesterday before taking a two-week recess.
The ruling will revive a grand jury's indictment of John H. Williams Jr., a Tulsa, Okla., businessman, on charges of defrauding a bank by using false statements and misstating his assets in order to qualify for loans.
Mr. Williams contended that prosecutors were fully aware of evidence that showed he had no intention to commit fraud because his actions were based upon a proper method of business bookkeeping.
Under a 1987 decision by a federal appeals court that had been binding in six states, federal prosecutors had a duty to put before grand juries all "substantial" evidence that would tend to show the suspect was innocent. Since they did not share with the grand jury the record-keeping evidence that was favorable to Mr. Williams, the indictment was thrown out.
The Bush administration had not objected to that legal duty in lower courts but nevertheless took an appeal to the Supreme Court to object. The court permitted the Justice Department to press that objection, resulting in yesterday's ruling.
Justice Scalia's opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Byron R. White.
Justice John Paul Stevens' dissenting opinion was supported by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas, the newest member of the court, has seldom voted against the federal government in major cases this term.
In the second decision, overruling a 29-year-old precedent, the court sharply restricted the power of federal judges to consider a claim that key facts were left out of a state criminal case.
Federal judges are not to hear that kind of complaint unless the convicted person can prove that the defense lawyer had a valid excuse for not bringing out the facts in the state proceeding, the 5-4 majority ruled in Keeney vs. Tamayo-Reyes.
The case involved a Cuban immigrant living in Portland, Ore., who claimed that he pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge because his limited use of English kept him from learning fully what his plea meant.