What happens at a criminal trial?

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

The trial is the last part of a criminal case. Anyone charged with a crime has a right to have a trial to decide if they are innocent or guilty. The trial can be decided by a jury (“jury trial”) or judge (“bench trial”). This article has information about criminal trials from the point of view of the victim of the crime.

What happens before the trial?

The District Attorney's office will probably call you or write to you before the trial date. They will probably want to interview you.

You should let the District Attorney's office know as soon as possible if you have names of witnesses, medical records, tape recordings, photographs, property damage bills, or anything else that will help them prepare their case. It is important to share information that would help their case.

But you do not have to tell everything to the District Attorney's office or the Victim Witness Advocate. Keep in mind that the DA’s office is not your lawyer. The things you tell them are not confidential and they must share certain information with the abusive person’s lawyer. It’s okay to say no to some things or not give them certain information. For example, if the DA wants you to sign a release so they can talk to your therapist, you can refuse to sign it. If you are worried about what to tell the DA’s office, you can talk to your own lawyer. See Are the people from the DA's office my lawyers?

What do I do if the person who abused me tries to talk to me during the criminal case?

The abusive person should not contact you. If there is an order telling them not to contact you and they contact you anyway, then they are violating the court order. For example, if you have a 209A restraining order or if the court told them at the arraignment not to contact you. You can report this to the District Attorney's office, the Victim/Witness Advocate, or to the police.

If the abusive person wants to talk to you about the case they should do it through their lawyer. You should not contact them either if there are orders telling them not to contact you.

What if the abusive person's lawyer wants to talk to me?

The lawyer is not doing anything wrong by trying to talk to you. But you do not have to talk to the lawyer. If you do not want to talk to the lawyer, just say so. If the lawyer wants to try to settle the case, the lawyer should do it with the DA's office, not with you. If the lawyer wants to ask you questions, they can do that when you are in court testifying at the trial.

But if you want to talk to the abusive person's lawyer before the trial, you can. It is up to you.

It is very important to figure out who the abusive person's lawyer is, and to be careful when you speak to them. That lawyer is on the side of the abusive person. The lawyer may try to confuse you. The abusive person's lawyer may use whatever you tell them to confuse your testimony in court. They might also accuse you of a crime. Remember that you do not have to talk to them. You can talk to your own lawyer if you have questions.

When do I get to tell the judge what happened?

If there is a trial, the DA's office will ask you to tell the court what happened. Telling the court what happened is called “testifying.” You will have to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You will testify on the witness stand, in front of the judge and maybe a jury. A lawyer from the DA’s office will ask you questions about what happened. The abusive person’s lawyer will also ask you questions.

The abusive person and their attorney will be in the courtroom. Other people may be sitting in the courtroom. You can bring friends and family members to be in the courtroom if you want.

Sometimes there is no trial. The abusive person may agree to a “plea bargain.” If the abusive person agrees to a plea bargain, you probably will not get to tell a judge or jury what happened.

What else happens at the trial?

If there were other witnesses, like the police, they will also be asked to testify. The abusive person may testify, too, but they do not have to and often don’t. Once everyone has testified, either the judge or a jury will make a decision.

What happens if the judge or jury decides the abusive person is guilty?

Many things can happen if the judge or jury decides the abusive person is guilty. The court might send them to jail or give them probation. The court may order them to go to counseling or do other things. It depends on a lot of things, like the type of crime and their past criminal record.

You can talk to the DA’s office about the types of sentences the person who abused you might get.

What happens if a judge or jury decides the abusive person is not guilty?

If the judge or jury decides the abusive person not guilty, the case is over. The abusive person will be free to leave the court after the trial. You cannot file another criminal complaint about the same incident. If the same person abuses you again, you can report that as a new crime.

There is always the chance that the abusive person will walk out of the court after the trial, even if they are found guilty. You need to think about your safety. It is good to do some safety planning before the trial about how to get home safely that day and how to stay safe afterwards. Contact the Safelink Domestic Violence Hotline to get help with safety planning.

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Call 911 if you are in danger right now.

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