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 defence.
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution affords citizens of the United States the right to a speedy and public trial. It is important to note that this right, as every single right within the Bill of Rights, is not a right created by the civil government. Rather, they are rights that are deemed to already exist preserved from governmental deprivation. The belief in inherent rights possessed by mankind is the ideal behind the Magna Carta.
Chapter 40 of the Magna Carta of 1215 states “We…will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.” This shows that the ultimate concern was that no man be deprived of justice. The inherent right all men possess to justice is at the heart of being afforded a speedy trial. It was thought that a miscarriage of justice could more readily occur in a system where men could be incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without the promise of a trial to present evidence of their potential innocence. Without the promise of a speedy trial, men could ultimately be imprisoned for an undefined sentence of time prior to ever having been lawfully determined to be guilty. The protections of the 6th Amendment have been said to be “an important safeguard to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial, to minimize anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation and to limit the possibility that long delay will impair the ability of an accused to defend himself.” United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116, 120 (1966)
While it is clear that the right to a speedy trial avoids lengthy periods of incarceration prior to determination of guilt, it is also clear that it serves other legitimate goals to ensure justice. First, it minimizes the threat that mere public accusation could create in its absence. Because one is promised a speedy trial, mere accusations do not hold the same threat since those accusations would be weighed upon a technical evidentiary standard at trial. Additionally, the preservation of the evidence itself can be seen. The delay of a trial can easily cause spoilage of evidence and diminished memories of witnesses who could be called to testify. Inaccurate or fuzzy memories serve to increase the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. Ensuring a speedy trial is a necessary tool in ensuring that accurate testimony and evidence are presented at trial.
So we know we are afforded the right to a speedy trial and we know why we are afforded this right. But now the question is, “how to determine when and if this right has been abridged?” The courts have determined that this right becomes activated once a criminal prosecution begins. This right then is afforded to the accused once the prosecution of a crime has begun. It has also been determined that the right does not require a formal indictment or charge; it begins once restraints are imposed by arrest. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 313, 320, 322 (1971)
This inherent or unalienable right to justice which all men possess served to give direction to our Founding Fathers. They saw that in order to practically achieve the greatest protection of this right, citizens must be assured the right to a speedy trial. The only hope that a falsely accused innocent man has of regaining his liberty is the preservation of accurate testimony and evidence and a prompt opportunity to confirm his innocence. This pursuit of justice is what lies at the heart of the constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Cynthia Noland Dunbar is an attorney, author and public speaker and is frequently seen on Fox & Friends. A former elected member of the Texas State Board of Education, she currently is an Assistant Professor of Law at Liberty University School of Law and teaches on our Constitutional and common law heritage.
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March 22, 2012