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District Courts of Massachusetts - Report of the Special Committee on Trial De Novo to the Chief Justice of the District Courts

NCJ Number
Date Published
24 pages
The results of a special committee report are presented to the Chief Justice of the District Courts. The report regards the effects of trial de novo procedure upon the quality of the judicial process in Massachusetts.
Trial de novo is a second trial or retrial before a 12-person jury. The trial is requested by the defendant if he/she is dissatisfied with the result of the initial nonjury trial held by the District Court judge. The impact of trial de novo in Massachusetts is assessed in relation to law enforcement, the defendant's rights, and the quality of justice. In addition, alternatives to the present two-tier system are discussed. One adverse effect of de novo trial upon law enforcement is that many defendants default after taking an appeal for a de novo hearing, thereby escaping punishment altogether. Another is the significant delay, often a year or more that occurs before cases are heard. A third disadvantage is possible reduction in sentence or reversal of the trial judge's initial sentence upon appeal to Superior Court; i.e., mild dispositions can be handed to serious offenders, who constitute the majority of appellants. Furthermore, the defendant's rights are adversely affected by delay of the right to jury trial since the de novo process forces him/her to bear the expense and anxiety of two trials. In addition, the possibility of appeal can dissuade the District Court judge from carefully considering the case or from imposing a sentence befitting the nature of the crime. The preferred alternative to trial de novo is the establishment of a right to jury trial in the first instance. This would be subject to appeal only on questions of law. Short of abolition of trial de novo, other improvements include: 1) eliminating some delay by changes in case scheduling and management techniques used in the Superior Court, 2) eliminating the right to trial by jury for certain minor offenses, and 3) supervising a defendant on probation through the probation department of the District Court, rather than the distant probation department of Superior Court. It is concluded that the elimination of trial de novo is necessary as a matter of public policy. Footnotes are provided.