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.
Perhaps more than any other Amendment, the 6th Amendment protects the liberties of the American people most directly. It is so effective in carrying out this goal that most Americans give its protections little thought or consideration.
By setting up the framework which limits the ability of the government to arbitrarily accuse and incarcerate the citizens at large the 6th Amendment minimizes the likelihood that criminal charges will be filed against political enemies of the state. In America no one can be arrested, tried, sentenced and imprison without it occurring under a set of rules in public, with a written record that can be accessed by the public and members of the media. Prior to the adoption of the 6th Amendment, these protections didn’t exist for large parts of Europe and Asia.
There are seven elements of the 6th Amendment:
Speedy Trial: As recognized by the Supreme Court this provision has three obvious benefits to the accused
- To prevent a lengthy period of incarceration before a trial. In other words the accused won’t be giving unlimited detention without having been tried and convicted.
- To minimize the effects of a public accusation. Undue suffering from a false accusation shouldn’t occur for more than an absolute minimum amount of time.
- To ensure that too much time didn’t lapse making it harder for the accused to defend himself either as a result of death or sickness of witnesses or due to loss of memories by needed witnesses.
Public Trial: Under its terms the trial must be open to the public and accessible by the media. Interestingly, this right predates English common law and possibly even the Roman legal system and has been thought to be essential to ensure that the government can’t use the court system as an instrument of persecution because the knowledge that every criminal trial is open and accessible to the public operates as an effective restraint.
Impartial Jury: Unlike a trial in which a judge or panel of judges make a decision, a jury trial is a legal proceeding in which the jurors make the decision. Interestingly the size of the jury is universally assumed to be 12 but in state criminal trials it can be as few as 6 individuals and in Ancient Greece a criminal trial might include over 500 persons in the jury. No matter the actual size, it is essential that the individuals who make up this jury be free of bias and prejudice. They should be representative of the population at large from which the accused comes from but should not be his immediate family or close friends.
Notice of Accusation: It is not sufficient that the state merely take the time to accuse an individual. The government must also inform the accused of the specific nature and cause of the accusation and do so in a way which makes it reasonably possible for the accused to mount a defense against the charge. Additionally all of the charges must be outlined and must include all ingredients necessary to constitute a crime.
In other words, the government can’t secretly charge you with speeding or tax fraud and yet not let you know specifically how or when you committed the crimes. They must be specific and precise in order to make it possible for you to explain, justify or otherwise defend yourself against the charges.
Confrontation: The right to directly question or cross-examine witnesses who have accused a defendant in front of the jury is a fundamental right which like the impartial jury and public trial requirement pre-dates the English legal system. A variation of this right is referenced in the Book of Acts which describes the Roman governor Porcius Festus, discussing the proper treatment of his prisoner the Apostle Paul: “It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”
Compulsory Process: Like the confrontation clause, the right of “Compulsory Process” protects Americans from unfair criminal accusations by allowing them to be able to obtain witnesses who can testify in open court on their behalf. Even if a witness does not wish to testify, compulsory process means that the state can subpoena him and force the witness to testify or be in contempt of court. If a person did not have compulsory process, witnesses who know of your innocence but who simply didn’t wish to be involved could lead to a guilt conviction of an innocent person. Embarrassment or fear are not legitimate excuses to avoid compulsory process because this right is designed to ensure the accused has the opportunity to present his strongest defense before the jury.
Counsel: Perhaps the most meaningful of all of the 6th Amendment rights, is the right to select the attorney or counsel of your choice to represent you in a criminal case. While much attention has been focused on the issue of when and whether every accused person must be provided with a minimally competent attorney, the framers felt that the greatest threat was not being able to hire the advocate of your choice. As early as the year 1300 there was an advance trade made up of individuals who represented or advocated on behalf of accused individuals or individuals who needed to make special pleadings before the government. At the time of the founding of the United States most of the colonies had adopted a policy of allowing accused individuals in all but the rarest cases the right to hire the counsel of their choice to aid in their defense. In other words the framers emphasized the importance of the accused having the option either through his own resources or through that of his friends and family to hire the best and most talented advocate and to prevent this would be considered an injustice. Even though modern litigation over this provision focuses more on the need to insure that every one is provided an attorney “even if they can not afford one” the greatest benefit of this provision is that every individual may choose to expend any or all of their resources to find the most capable lawyer they desire.
The 6th Amendment embodies much of the Founder’s concerns about the potential abuse of the individual by the government. The founders were quite familiar with the list of abuses by the English monarch. It is interesting to note that of the 26 rights mentioned in the first through the eighth amendments, 15 of them have something to do with criminal procedure and notably 7 of those 15 are found in this amendment.
Marc S. Lampkin is a Vice President at Quinn Gillespie