What freedoms does the Sixth Amendment protect?

The Sixth Amendment provides: "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

Most people have no desire to see the inside of a courtroom, but if circumstances require it U.S. citizens all have right to a speedy trial with an impartial jury (iStock).

Most people have no desire to see the inside of a courtroom, but if circumstances require it U.S. citizens all have right to a speedy trial with an impartial jury (iStock).

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."

It contains many protections to those charged with crimes. Sometimes people colloquially refer to the Sixth Amendment as the one that provides fair-trial rights to criminal defendants. It protects the rights to a speedy trial, a public trial, an impartial jury, information and notice of criminal charges, right to confront witnesses, right to have court compel witnesses to come to trial to testify and the right to the assistance of counsel.

What is the right to a speedy trial?

The right to a speedy trial means that the government must commence prosecution within a reasonable amount of time. The speedy-trial right means that the government cannot simply let a defendant have an indictment hang over his or her head without further action. The U.S. Supreme Court considers four factors in determining whether a defendant's speedy-trial rights have been infringed. They are: (1) whether delay before trial was uncommonly long; (2) whether the government or the criminal defendant is more to blame for that delay; (3) whether the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial; and (4) and whether the defendant suffered prejudice from the delay.

What does it mean for a trial to be public?

A public trial means that generally a criminal defendant cannot be tried in a secret court proceeding, such as the Star Chamber in England in the sixteenth century. The rationale is that a public trial makes it less likely that a gross injustice will be perpetrated. The issue surfaces when a judge closes a courtroom and denies the press or others access to the courtroom.

Sometimes criminal defendants wish to deny the press access to their cases. Other times both parties agree that the case should be tried in private. The Sixth Amendment requires that the judge make specific findings as to why a case should be closed before engaging in such drastic measures. In Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court explained the importance of conducting trials in open view: "People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing. When a criminal trial is conducted in the open, there is at least an opportunity both for understanding the system in general and its workings in a particular case."

What is an impartial jury?

The Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury means that a defendant must have a jury that is chosen in a process that represents a fair cross-section of the community. The U.S. Supreme Court explained in Taylor v. Louisiana (1975; see LegalSpeak, p. 70) that "selection of a petit [trial] jury from a representative cross section of the community is an essential component of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial."

What is the Confrontation Clause?

The Confrontation Clause provides that criminal defendants—through their attorneys—have the chance to confront their accusers face-to-face in the courtroom. It means that defense counsel can cross-examine those who make charges and give unfavorable testimony about defendants. In the words of the Supreme Court, the Confrontation Clause "aims to produce fairness by ensuring the reliability of testimony."

For example, police in the state of Washington charged Michael Crawford with assault and attempted murder after he stabbed a man who earlier had attempted to rape his wife. The wife later gave a tape-recorded statement to the police about the incident. However, at trial Crawford's wife refused to testify under a spousal exemption under state law that provides that spouses don't have to give evidence or testify against each other. The prosecution then tried to introduce the tape-recorded statement. Crawford countered that introducing that tape-recorded statement violated the Confrontation Clause, as he would not have an opportunity to cross-examine his wife.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed in Crawford v. Washington (2004; see LegalSpeak, p. 71), reasoning that the lower court erred in allowing the wife's testimonial statement to be introduced when the husband did not have a chance at cross-examination.

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