Frequently Asked Questions
How does the court system work?
Criminal cases are heard by one of three departments in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts court system – the District Court, Juvenile Court and Superior Court Departments. Almost all cases begin at the District Court level. The vast majority of cases remain in District Court from beginning to end. A small percentage of cases proceed to the Superior Court.
What happens in District Court?
There are twelve District Courts in Middlesex County. A judge in the District Court is authorized to impose sentences to the House of Correction for a maximum period of two and one half years on any single offense. A case begins in the District Court when the Clerk Magistrate issues a criminal complaint in response to an application for a complaint filed by a police officer or private citizen, or when a police officer makes an arrest.
What’s the difference between a bench and jury trial in District Court?
There are two options for trial, either a “bench trial” or a “jury trial.” A bench trial is when a judge decides the case without a jury. A jury trial in District Court is when a jury of 6 people unanimously decide the case against the defendant. In both the bench trial and jury trial the Judge would impose a sentence if the defendant is found guilty.
What is a probable cause hearing?
Most Superior Court cases proceed directly to the Grand Jury and then to the Superior Court without victims or witnesses having to testify at the District Court level. In some Superior Court cases, however, a preliminary hearing known as a Probable Cause Hearing is held in the local District Court. The hearing is similar to a trial in that witnesses testify and are cross-examined in the presence of the defendant. A judge presides over the hearing and decides whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. If the District Court judge finds probable cause, the case is then presented to the Grand Jury and proceeds to Superior Court.
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’s the difference between Superior Court and District Court?
There are two Superior Court locations in the Middlesex District - one in Woburn and one in Lowell. The Superior Court has authority over all crimes and most often handles major felony cases. Judges in the Superior Court may impose sentences to the State Prison or the House of Correction for any period of time up to life depending upon the offense that is charged.
A case begins in the Superior Court after the Grand Jury has returned an indictment. If the case goes to trial, the defendant may choose to have the case heard either by a judge or a jury of twelve people.
What is an appeal?
A defendant may appeal to the Massachusetts Appeals Court for review of the procedures or interpretations of law by a trial judge. Some cases are appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). These appeals are not new trials. No witnesses testify and no new evidence is presented. Only issues of law are reviewed at this level.
Please see Juvenile Justice.
Steps in the Court Process
There are three steps:
1. Arraignment and Bail
2. Pre-trial Conference
Arraignment and Bail
The first appearance of the defendant before a judge is at the arraignment. Victims and witnesses need not attend the arraignment. During an arraignment:
- The defendant is present.
- The defendant is entitled to be represented by an attorney. 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 schedules a date for the defendant to return to court and 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 at this stage of the process he or she is presumed innocent. However, if the Court, after a hearing, determines the defendant is “dangerous”, he or she may be held on bail.
- Alternatively, The judge may impose conditions on the defendant’s release, including an order prohibiting the defendant from having contact with the victim or witnesses.
A pre-trial conference may be scheduled after the arraignment. Victims and witnesses will be notified in advance if their presence is required. At a pre-trial conference:
- 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 may be resolved without a trial.
- The defendant may plead guilty and be sentenced by the judge.
- If the defendant continues to plead not guilty, the judge sets a date for trial.
Not every case goes to trial. A defendant may change his or her plea from not guilty to guilty and be sentenced by a judge at any time. If a case does go to trial, victims and witnesses will be notified by an Advocate or Assistant District Attorney and may receive subpoenas. In some cases, additional hearings, conferences, or case status reviews will be scheduled before the trial date. At a trial before a judge, you can expect the following:
- The Commonwealth, represented by the Assistant District Attorney, presents its evidence first. Commonwealth witnesses are questioned by an Assistant District Attorney and then cross-examined by the defense attorney.
- The defendant may or may not choose to present evidence on his or her behalf. If the defendant does decide to present evidence, the Assistant District Attorney has the right to cross-examine defense witnesses, including the defendant.
After all of the evidence has been presented, the judge will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will impose a sentence, taking into consideration the facts and circumstances of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, if any, and the impact the crime has had on the victim.
At a trial before a jury, you can expect the following:
- The Commonwealth’s case begins with an opening statement by the Assistant District Attorney. This is a statement of what the Assistant District Attorney expects the evidence to be at trial. It is not evidence. The defense attorney also has the option of making an opening statement at the beginning of the trial, but it is not required.
After opening statements, the evidence is presented to the jury in the same manner that it is presented in a trial before a judge.ShareThis