Criminal Trials

If your case is not resolved in the pre-trial stages, it will go to a trial. You are entitled to a trial before a jury, or you may elect to have a trial only before a judge.  In a jury trial, the judge makes rulings on the legal issues in the trial, while the jury decides what facts are true and whether you are guilty or not guilty.

If you give up, or “waive”, a jury, and go to trial before only a judge, then the judge will make the factual determinations also, including whether you are guilty or not guilty. A trial before only a judge is commonly called a “bench trial.”  Waiving a jury is a very significant decision, and one that should only be made by consulting closely with your lawyer.

Most district courts will have several, if not many cases scheduled for trial on the same day. Most of those cases will be resolved on that day without trial, some may be continued (rescheduled) for various reasons, and usually at least one will go to trial before a jury. If your trial is scheduled in the Superior Court, your case will go to trial that day, unless you decide to change your plea.

At a trial, the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is always on the prosecution. If the jury, or the judge in a bench trial, has a reasonable doubt about your guilty, then they have to find you not guilty.

The 6 major steps during a criminal trial process in Massachusetts include:

  • Opening statements
  • Presentation of evidence
  • Closing arguments
  • Jury Instructions
  • Verdict determination
  • Sentencing based on any guilty verdict

Opening Statements

A trial begins with opening statements by the lawyers.  Generally, this is a time for each side to tell the jury what they expect the evidence will show.

Presentation of Evidence

After the opening statements, the prosecution will present its witnesses and the other evidence it believes will establish that you are guilty. Your lawyer will be able to question, or “cross-examine”, those witnesses, to raise doubt about their testimony and your guilt.

After the prosecution has introduced all of its evidence, your lawyer may or may not choose to present his own evidence on your behalf.  Sometimes the defense will not introduce any evidence at all, and will rest on the cross examination of the prosecution’s witnesses.

Closing Arguments

After all the evidence is introduced by both sides, the lawyers are allowed an opportunity to speak to the jury again in closing arguments.  This is the time when the lawyers can tell the jury what they should make of what they heard and saw. It is your lawyer’s only chance to try to persuade the jury to see the case your way. In closing arguments, the defense goes first, and the prosecutor goes last.

Jury Instructions

After the closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury on the law.  He will tell the jury how it must consider certain kinds of evidence, and what it must find in order to return a guilty verdict. Jury instruction is a critical part of trial, and your lawyer will have an opportunity to ask the judge to give certain instructions that may favor your version of the evidence and encourage the jury to find reasonable doubt.


After they are instructed on the law, the jury will be taken into a private room to consider the case. Sometimes they reach a decision quickly, sometimes only after many hours of deliberation.  The jury must be unanimous in its findings on every charge against you.  It is not unusual for a jury to find someone not guilty of some charges and guilty of others.