A Guide for Witnesses
Few people have had experience with the courts before becoming a victim or witness to a crime. Most people who have to testify will understandably be nervous. The best advice is to listen carefully to the questions, make sure you understand each question, take your time and tell the truth. The following information will help prepare for testifying.
Preparing for Trial
You will meet with the ADA and Advocate to discuss what happened and review the testimony you will offer in court. You are encouraged to provide them with all information even if you think it is unimportant, harmful or embarrassing.
Appearing in Court
You will be notified when to appear in court. Some victims and witnesses will receive a subpoena, which is a court order to appear in court. Please arrive on time. If you require documentation of your court appearance, contact the Advocate.
Please speak with the ADA or Advocate the day before you are scheduled to appear to make sure that the case is still expected to be heard.
It is not unusual for delays to occur so it is wise to bring a book or magazine to help pass the time.
Court proceedings are formal. Please dress neatly and appropriately.
Keep these points in mind while you are testifying:
- Always tell the truth.
- If you do not understand the question, say so.
- If a question can be answered by a simple yes or no, do so.
- Do not volunteer information.
- If you do not know the answer to a question, say so.
- Do not guess.
- Remain calm and courteous. Testifying can be frustrating, but it is important not to lose your temper or become argumentative.
- It is perfectly proper for you to have discussed the case and your testimony with the ADA or Advocate beforehand. Do not deny having done so.
- Speak loudly and clearly. Some courts have amplifying microphones, but most microphones only record your testimony.
- When you are cross-examined by the Defense Attorney, do not try and give explanations for your actions and answers. If explanations are needed, the ADA will ask you additional questions after the defense attorney has finished cross-examination.
- Do not discuss your testimony with other witnesses during the trial.
- Avoid jurors.
- You may be entitled to a witness fee. Please see your ADA or Advocate to apply for it.
The Court System
Criminal cases are handled in one of three divisions of the court system. These three divisions are the District, Juvenile and Superior Courts.
The District Court
There are five District Courts in Norfolk County. They are located in Brookline, Dedham, Quincy, Stoughton and Wrentham. Generally misdemeanors and some felonies are handled in the District Court. A judge in the District Court can impose sentences to the county House of Correction (not State Prison) for up to a maximum of two and one half years on a single offense. A case begins in the District Court when the police make an arrest or the Clerk Magistrate issues a criminal complaint in response to an application filed by a police officer or following a hearing. Private Citizens may also file an application for a criminal complaint.
Bench and Jury Sessions in District Court
Every defendant charged with a crime has the right to choose a trial by jury or by a judge. If the defendant chooses a jury trial, the case will be tried before a jury of six citizens of Norfolk County, in a District Court “jury session”. Jury sessions are located in the Dedham, Quincy and Wrentham Courts. If the defendant chooses to have a judge determine the facts, the trial is called a “bench” trial and is held in the District Court in a “bench session”. At a jury trial, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty: In a bench trial, the judge makes the decision. In both cases it is the judge’s role to preside over the trial, make the rulings about the law and impose the sentence if the defendant is found guilty. Sentences are never imposed by the jury.
If the person charged is under the age of 17 (at the time of the commission of the crime), he or she is a juvenile and is prosecuted in the juvenile session in the District Court in Dedham. In some instances, a juvenile may be tried as a Youthful Offender and be subject to an adult sentence. Specialized ADA’s and Advocates are assigned to handle juvenile cases in Norfolk County.
The Superior Court has jurisdiction over all crimes, but most often handles felony cases. Judges in the Superior Court have power to impose sentences to State Prison or a County House of Correction, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Cases proceed to the Superior court in one or two ways: Following a Probate Cause hearing or as a result of a Direct Indictment.
A Probable Cause hearing is held in the District Court. This hearing occurs before a judge and in the presence of the defendant.
Witnesses testify and the judge then decides whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has been 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 the Superior Court.
A Direct Indictment is the result of a felony case proceeding directly to the Superior Court by way of the Grand Jury. This is known as the “direct indictment” process.
The Grand Jury is comprised of twenty-three citizens from Norfolk County who are selected to serve for three months. In order for a case to proceed to Superior Court, the ADA presents evidence of the crime to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury decides whether that evidence is sufficient to issue an indictment. This is a secret proceeding. One witness testifies at a time, there is no judge or defendant present, and there is no cross-examination of witnesses by a Defense Attorney. The ADA and Advocate can explain the Grand Jury process to you in more detail.
After being convicted and sentenced, a defendant may appeal the conviction and/or sentence. Sentences are appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. Convictions are appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, or in certain Circumstances, to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for review of the trial procedures.
An appeal is not a new trial. No witnesses testify. For more information about the appeals process, ask an Advocate or ADA.