Understanding the Court Process
Arraignment and Bail
The defendant’s first appearance in court before a judge is at the arraignment. Unless requested, it is not necessary for victims and witnesses to come to court for the arraignment. However, you have the right to be present at most court hearings.
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 enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”. It is common for a defendant to plead “not guilty” at the arraignment.
- The judge schedules a date for the defendant to return to court for a pre-trial conference and will either release the defendant on “personal recognizance,” impose bail or hold the defendant without bail. The defense attorney may request a review of the bail amount at a future hearing in Superior Court.
- If the defendant is released on bail, the judge may impose additional conditions. For example, a judge can order that there be no contact with the victim or witnesses.
- Victim Witness Advocates will request that notification be made to victims and witnesses if the defendant makes bail.
A pre-trial conference is scheduled after the arraignment. The purpose of the pre-trial conference is to allow the ADA and the Defense Attorney to discuss the case. Victims and witnesses will be notified if their presence is required. If the opportunity to resolve the case arises, the victim will be consulted.
At the pre-trial conference:
- The defendant is present
- The ADA 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. The victim’s input about the sentence is important and will be solicited by the ADA or Advocate.
- If the case is not resolved, the judge sets a date for trial.
- In some cases, additional hearings, conferences or case status reviews will be scheduled before the trial date. You have a right to be present at any of these court dates. However, unless requested by the ADA or Advocate, your presence is not required.
Most cases are resolved without a trial. If a case does go to trial, victims and witnesses will be notified of the trial date and may receive a subpoena requiring one’s presence in court. At a trial, you can expect the following:
- The Commonwealth, represented by the ADA, presents the evidence first. Commonwealth witnesses are questioned by the ADA and then cross-examined by the Defense Attorney.
- The defendant is not required to present any witnesses. The defendant does not have to testify. However, defendants and defense witnesses who do testify may be cross-examined by the ADA.
- In a jury trial, the ADA may begin the trial with an opening statement. This is a summary of the case. The Defense Attorney may also give an opening statement, but is not required to do so. At the conclusion of the evidence, the ADA and Defense Attorney will each give a closing argument, summarizing the evidence presented at trial.
- The judge or jury decides whether the Commonwealth has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and returns a verdict of guilty or not guilty. In jury trials, after closing arguments and before a jury is sent to deliberate, the judge instructs the jury on laws that the jury must consider in deciding the case. A jury’s verdict must be unanimous.
- If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will impose a sentence either at that time or at a later date (sentencing hearing).
Victim Impact Statement
In all cases, the ADA will consider the victim’s views and the impact of the crime when determining the appropriate sentencing recommendation. The court will be informed about the impact of the crime on the victim and the victim’s feelings regarding sentencing.
Victims (or family members of homicide victims) are entitled to provide a Victim Impact Statement, verbally or in writing, to the judge prior to sentencing. The statement describes the physical, emotional and financial impact of the crime on the victim, as well as the victim’s input regarding the sentence. The Victim Impact Statement may then be forwarded to the Probation Department, Department of Corrections or the Parole Board.
Victims of crime may be entitled to seek reimbursement in two ways:
If the defendant pleads or is found guilty, the judge may order him or her to pay for out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a direct result of the crime. Crime victims have the right to request restitution. If you have incurred medical bills, property damage or other expenses, speak to an ADA or an Advocate.
- Victim Compensation
The state provides compensation to victims of violent crimes or their dependents for certain out-of-pocket expenses. For eligibility information, ask the Advocate about the Victim Compensation Program. If you are eligible, an Advocate can help you file a claim with the Attorney General’s Office.
Fears or Threats
If you are worried or fearful about your involvement in the case, please contact the ADA or Advocate. If you are threatened in any way, please call the police immediately.
Contact by Defense Attorney
In the coming weeks, you may receive a telephone call and/or visit from investigators or a Defense Attorney representing the defendant. It is well within your rights to consent to or refuse such an interview. In fact, no one can tell you that you must talk or not talk to anyone. You should know that any statement you have made to law enforcement officials will be turned over to the Defense Attorney.
The District Attorney’s Victim Witness Services Unit is available to provide information and assist with concerns relating to the case even after the case is over. If the defendant has been incarcerated, an Advocate may assist you in filing a Criminal Offender Records Information (C.O.R.I.) application. This is a request to be notified of changes in an inmate’s status and of an inmate’s release from jail or prison, including parole eligibility.
The Victim Services Unit at the Norfolk House of Correction (781-329-3705 x 265) is available to provide information on a house of correction inmate’s status.
The Victim Services Unit at the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) (978-369-3618) is available to provide information on offenders in the custody of DOC.
If the case is appealed, a Victim Witness Advocate can provide information and notification to victims regarding the progress of the case in the Appeals Court or Supreme Judicial Court. Feel free to contact an Advocate for assistance even after the case is over.