Frequently Asked Questions

How does the court system work?

In Massachusetts, criminal cases proceed in one of three departments: District Court, Juvenile Court or Superior Court.  Almost all cases begin at the District Court level.  There are twelve District Courts, three Juvenile Courts and two Superior Courts in Middlesex County.

How does a case begin?

Generally, a case begins in the District Court after a police officer makes an arrest or a Clerk Magistrate issues a criminal complaint in response to an application filed by a police officer or private citizen. 

What’s the difference between Superior Court and District Court?

The District Court handles misdemeanors where the maximum sentence is 2 ½ years in the House of Corrections.  The Superior Court has authority over all crimes and most often handles major felony cases. Judges in the Superior Court can impose sentences to the House of Corrections or to State Prison for any period of time up to life.

What is Grand Jury?

Before a case can enter the Superior Court, the Grand Jury must hear evidence of the crime and vote to issue an indictment against the defendant.  The Grand Jury is made up of twenty-three citizens, randomly selected by computer to serve jury duty.  

What can I expect once my case is in District or Superior Court?

There are three key steps: arraignment and bail; pre-trial hearings; and trial. 

What is an arraignment ?

The first appearance of the defendant before a judge is called the arraignment. During the arraignment:

  • The court may appoint an attorney if the defendant is found to be indigent.
  • The judge formally notifies the defendant of the charges.  The defendant ordinarily enters a plea of “not guilty” at his/her first appearance.
  • The judge will either release the defendant on personal recognizance or impose bail. 
  • The judge may use bail only as a way to ensure that the defendant will return to court.  Bail may not be used to punish the defendant because he or she is presumed innocent. 
  • The judge may impose conditions of release, including an order prohibiting the defendant from having contact with the victim or witnesses.

What are pre-trial hearings?

Pre-trial hearings are scheduled after the arraignment. Victims and witnesses will be notified in advance if their presence is required. At  pre-trial hearings:

  • The defendant is present.
  • The Assistant District Attorney and defense attorney discuss the case in order to decide how the case will proceed including the possibility that the case can be resolved without a trial.
  • The Assistant District Attorney or defense attorney can argue pre-trial motions.
  • The defendant can plead guilty and be sentenced by the judge.

What happens at trial?

The Assistant District Attorney has the burden of proving every crime beyond a reasonable doubt.    The jury consists of six people in District Court and twelve people in Superior Court. 

  • The trial begins with an opening statement by the Assistant District Attorney.  This is a road map of what to expect at trial.  The defense attorney also has the option of making an opening statement, but it is not required.
  • The Assistant District Attorney calls witnesses to testify and presents evidence.  The defense attorney can cross-examine the witnesses.
  • The defense can call witnesses but is not required to do so.  The Assistant District Attorney can cross-examine any defense witnesses.   
  • The defense attorney makes a closing argument to the jury.  The Assistant District Attorney then makes a closing argument.
  • The judge instructs the jury on the law.
  • The jury goes out to deliberate.  The jury verdict must be unanimous. 

What is an appeal?

A defendant may appeal decisions of law or guilty verdicts to the Massachusetts Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court. These appeals are not new trials.  No witnesses testify and no new evidence is presented. Only issues of law are reviewed at this level.

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