Understanding the Court Procedure in Massachusetts Superior and District Court in the Aaron Hernandez Case

The case of Aaron Hernandez reveals some interesting aspects of Massachusetts’s court procedures. For example, many people wonder why Hernandez is being arraigned again in superior court. The reason lies in the fact that there are typically two arraignments in any superior court charge. Hernandez was initially arraigned in the Attleboro district court, as all cases most cases start in district court. As an Attleboro criminal defense lawyer, Hernandez’s case proceed through the district court in the normal fashion, with typically one or more continuance of the probable cause hearing which occurred in this case. On September 6th, Hernandez will be arraigned in the Fall River Superior Court where the case will remain until a verdict or plea on the charges or on amended charges.

As there was enough probable cause to issue a criminal complaint against him and the charges consisted of allegations that could not remain in district court, an arraignment in superior court is the next step. This is because the district court simply has no final jurisdiction over a charge of first degree murder.

  • What jurisdiction does the district court have?

While the district court does have a jurisdiction over charges such as possession of a firearm without a ID card and some of the lesser charges in the case, the lead charges in the Hernandez case could not be resolved in district court. Therefore, even if Hernandez wanted to admit to the charges, the district court would not have the authority to entertain a plea on a murder charge.

When a charge has no final jurisdiction in district court, the first date after the arraignment will be a probable cause hearing. Accordingly, the Hernandez case then proceeded to probable cause hearing since there was no jurisdiction in the district court. As is often the case, the probable cause hearing in Hernandez’s case was continued in order to allow the grand jury time to indict the case.

  • How is the case brought to the superior court?

The case is brought to superior court in two ways:
1. The case is indicted by a grand jury
2. If the judge found probable cause at the probable cause hearing.

The reason that almost all cases proceed to the superior court by indictment is that it deprives the defense the benefit of cross examining and learning more about the prosecutor’s case. At the grand jury, the defense attorney has no role as he or she does not get to appear or cross examine witnesses; the prosecutor, essentially without any oppositions, is allowed to present evidence to a grand jury where the grand jury returns either an indictment or a no true bill. It is extremely rare for a grand jury not to return an indictment given that the standard is very low and the defense are not allowed to defend their case. Accordingly, the Hernandez case was indicted and scheduled for an arraignment in superior court; which began the formal process of moving the case towards a trial date or resolution.

In superior court, motions can be brought fourth. As cases such as the Hernandez case cannot stay in district court, the district court judges are essentially gatekeepers until the case gets to superior court. Hernandez’s Defense Lawyers did bring motions contesting the methods used by the prosecution to investigate the case and alleged that witnesses were being misled by investigators, but the Attleboro District Court judge rules that the issues that were presented would be better off heard by a superior court judge as the district court no longer had jurisdiction over the case as an arraignment date had been set in superior court.

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