The pre-trial, trial, and verdict process

Get information in the criminal court process about what to expect, verdicts and appeals, missing your court date or probation appointment, and more.

Pre-trial conferences

What is a pre-trial conference date?

A pre-trial conference date is usually the next court date scheduled after the arraignment. You should talk to a lawyer before this date. If you have an attorney who was not in the courtroom when this date was set, be sure to talk to your attorney and give him or her the pre-trial date so that the attorney may accompany you to court on that date.

What occurs at a pre-trial conference?

Generally, either the case is resolved or the case is prepared for trial. If you want to resolve the case, the process is the same as the one set out in the discussion about arraignment. If you want to go to trial and you don't have a lawyer, you must file a Waiver of Counsel form (see below). If you filed one at arraignment, you don't need to file another. You will then speak to the prosecutor to try to resolve your case.

You, or your lawyer, and the prosecutor exchange information about the case. This is called "discovery". During the pre-trial conference, either side can file or set a date for filing motions, including a motion to dismiss the complaint or to prevent certain evidence from being used at trial.

A Pre-Trial Conference Report (see below) must be signed by both sides, submitted to the judge, and signed by the judge.  

The next court date scheduled may be for motions or trial or both.

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About the trial

How soon must a trial take place?

A defendant must be tried within 12 months of the "return day" (usually the arraignment date) in the court in which the case is awaiting trial. However, this time limit is often extended because the defendant agrees to continuances and for other reasons. See, Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Art. 11 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and Mass. Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 36

When a defendant is being held in custody, any continuance may not exceed thirty days. G.L. c. 276, § 35

How are cases decided at a trial?

Defendants in criminal cases (not when charges are only civil infractions) have the right to have a jury of their peers decide their guilt or innocence. Therefore, before trial, defendants need to decide whether to have a jury trial, where the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not, or a bench trial, where the judge decides without a jury. Usually, defendants choose to have a jury trial because they want a jury of their peers to hear the evidence and decide their guilt. But sometimes, there may be circumstances where a defense attorney will recommend a bench trial without a jury. In district court, a jury will be made up of 6 people you help select, and in superior court, the jury will consist of 12 people.

Anyone accused of a crime is presumed under the law to be innocent until they plead guilty or are proved guilty at a trial. The prosecutor has to convince a jury or judge at a trial that the defendant is guilty, and must provide evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has the right to remain silent, and that silence can't be used against him or her.

Verdicts and pleas

What is a verdict?

A verdict is the final decision by the jury. Juries may find a defendant “guilty” or “not guilty” of each crime charged. A finding of not guilty means that the jury was not convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no such thing as a verdict of “innocent.” When the defendant is found not guilty, it is called an acquittal. The defendant who is acquitted can never be tried again for the same crime — this is called double jeopardy.   

If the defendant is found guilty, he or she will be sentenced.

Can I appeal a guilty verdict?

Yes. There are many possible reasons to appeal a verdict in a criminal case, although only a minority of appeals actually succeeds. There are important deadlines that you should discuss with a lawyer, including the first requirement that a form entitled "notice of appeal" be filed within 30 days of the jury having found a defendant guilty.

An appeal is not a new trial. If your appeal is successful, the appellate court may grant you a new trial, send the case back to the trial court for a hearing or, in unusual circumstances, dismiss your case. The appellate court can review the evidence (testimony and exhibits) presented at your trial to see if there was a legal error. The appellate court doesn't decide the facts of the case as the judge or the jury in a trial does.

Can I appeal from a guilty plea?

Successful appeals must present a specific legal problem with the plea that you entered voluntarily and which was approved by the judge. An appeal is taken by filing a motion for new trial in the court where you pled guilty. The motion must be accompanied by an affidavit that outlines the specific facts that form the basis for your appeal. The affidavit should be signed under the pains and penalties of perjury by someone who has personal knowledge of the facts stated.  

If you're successful, the case is not dismissed — instead, you get a "new trial." It will be as if you didn't plead guilty, and the case starts over.

Talk to a lawyer to learn more about your options to appeal and the process that must be followed.  

Missing court or probation appointments

What happens if I don't go to court?

If you don't go to court on the date that you are supposed to, then a warrant for your arrest may be issued on that day. If you miss court, go to the clerk's office immediately and explain the situation. You may be assigned another court date. It's your responsibility to arrive at court on the right day and at the right time.

What should I do if I miss a probation appointment?

Call the probation office immediately, explain that you missed your appointment, and politely ask for another appointment. If you don't contact the probation office, you may be arrested.

How can I get help if I'm a victim of a crime?

The Victim Bill of Rights makes sure you're provided with necessary information.

Victim/Witness Information will help you locate programs. Each district attorney’s office has a victim/witness assistance program that may be able to help you.

The state attorney general's office also serves victims and witnesses in a variety of ways. See Resources for Victims or Victims of Violent Crime.

In addition, there are many other resources that may be available to assist in getting counseling, compensation, and to help with court appearances. 2 sources of assistance are listed below:

Victim Rights Law Center
115 Broad St., 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02110
Phone: (617) 399-6720
Fax: (617) 399-6722
www.victimrights.org

For more information, see Mass. Law About Victims and Witnesses of Crimes

Where can I get help if I'm a criminal defendant?

There are many resources you can use in addition to hiring your own lawyer. Many court houses have a law library staffed by knowledgeable librarians that can direct you to a wide variety of highly useful material. The location listings of each law library can be found below. 

The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the agency that provides attorneys for those who can't afford them, may also be helpful in answering questions regardless of whether you're able to hire your own lawyer.

On the first Wednesday of every month, the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), a statewide association of lawyers, offers Dial-A-Lawyer, where you can call between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to obtain free legal advice at (617) 338-0610.

If you need to hire a lawyer, you can find lawyer referral services at Find a Lawyer

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