The Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
The Sixth Amendment to our Constitution effectively established the procedures governing criminal courts.
At its core, the Amendment ensures that those accused of crimes will get a fair trial and have every opportunity to clear their name. Like the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, the Sixth also grants multiple rights, in this case seven of them.
The opening clause guarantees the accused a speedy and public trial, based on the principle “justice delayed is justice denied.” While the Supreme Court has not set any firm timeline for what constitutes a “speedy” trial, generally the Justices have held trials must take place within one year of the formal accusation.
The “public” nature of a trial is critical to ensure transparency and fairness throughout the legal process. By the time of the Revolution, most Englishmen were already enjoying fair trials and the Founders wanted Americans to enjoy the same privilege.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson considered “trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Moreover, the Founders believed an integral part of a fair trial is an impartial jury, the third right granted in this Amendment. It requires the jurors to be from the area in which the crime was allegedly committed.
Additionally, the Supreme Court has found that the jurors must represent a cross-section of society and be unbiased. To ensure this requirement is met, lawyers for both sides may screen all potential jurors and, with the approval of the presiding judge, remove those that are not acceptable.
Consistent with its historical purpose, the jury has the right to acquit (declare innocent) the defendant regardless of the strength of the prosecution’s case or return logically inconsistent verdicts to mitigate or lessen punishment.
The Accusation Clause requires the prosecution inform the accused of all charges through an indictment, a legal document with a detailed listing of those charges for which the defendant will be tried. This stipulation stems from a time when the defendant sometimes did not know the nature of the accusation against him.
The next section is the Confrontation Clause. Its purpose is to eliminate hearsay evidence, testimony by one person about what another person said relating to the accused. This clause allows the defense to confront and, importantly, cross-examine all witnesses.
Related to it is the Compulsory Process Clause, giving the criminally accused the right to call its own witnesses. If anyone does not want to testify, the court will subpoena them. Taken together, the Confrontation and Compulsory Clauses guarantee the defender’s right to be present during all proceedings.
The final section of the Sixth Amendment is the Assistance of Counsel Clause which guarantees the accused the right to counsel. Importantly, the Supreme Court declared in Gideon v. Wainwright (1961) counsel must be provided in all felony cases even if the defendant cannot afford it.
In those cases, the government is required to offer, free of charge, an “effective” attorney for the defendant.
This right is critical since without it the playing field would significantly favor the government.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does it matter to us today that the Sixth Amendment grants protections to the criminally accused?
The Sixth Amendment, along with the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth, helped usher in a new age of justice. They enshrined rights which gave the accused every possible chance to mount a successful defense.
Our Forefathers were so concerned about unfair prosecutions and an over-reaching government that four of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights deal with the criminal justice system.
What the Founders created with these various rights grants all Americans transparency and fairness in criminal proceedings. Today and always, we must be grateful for their foresight in that regard.
SUGGESTED READING A great book to read about the dynamics of a jury is “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Ross. Later turned into a play and an Oscar winning movie, it is a great study of human nature in a court room setting.
PLACES TO VISIT If you want to see your Constitution at work, you should attend a public trial in your local area.
You will find it fascinating.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
You can reach Tom Hand at firstname.lastname@example.org