The 6th Amendment contains five principles that affect the rights of a defendant in a criminal prosecution: the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to be tried by an impartial jury, the right to be informed of the charges, the right to confront and call witnesses, and the right to an attorney.
Every defendant has a right to a speedy trial. Although the Supreme Court does not often visit this issue, it has a four-part test to determine whether a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. The four factors considered are the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, whether the defendant has asserted the right and the prejudice to the defendant because of the delay.
The Supreme Court also has ruled that the only proper remedy if a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated is the outright dismissal of the charges. Because of this extraordinary remedy, cases in which a court finds that this right has been violated are almost non-existent.
As for the public-trial requirement, the Supreme Court has ruled that this right has limitations. For instance, a court is justified in limiting access to a trial if the publicity would undermine a defendant’s due-process rights. A defendant also may request a closed trial, although he or she must show that an open trial would hinder his or her rights to a fair hearing and that there are no reasonable alternatives that could guarantee a fair trial. Because of the Sixth Amendment requirement and the unusual circumstances that justify a non-public trial, a closed trial is rare.
At most trials, a defendant has a right to a jury. If the crime carries a sentence of six months or fewer, however, a defendant may be tried by only a judge, although many states provide a jury regardless of the crime or punishment.
Not only does a defendant have a right to a jury, but that jury also must be impartial. This essentially means that jurors must be unbiased and that the pool from which the jury members are selected — the venire — must fairly represent a cross-section of the community.
During the jury-questioning process, called voir dire, both the prosecution and the defense may ask potential jurors questions whose answers might show bias. Jurors who show evidence of bias may be dismissed “for cause.”
Each side also gets a certain number of peremptory challenges, which means that it may dismiss potential jurors for no cause at all. The Supreme Court has ruled, however, that peremptory challenges may not be based on race or sex.
The requirement that a defendant be notified of the “nature and cause of the accusation” simply means that the government must present the charges to the defendant formally. For a felony, this is done with an indictment, which is a detailed account of the charges against the defendant. The indictment usually is read in open court, and the judge will ask if the defendant understands it.
A misdemeanor usually is charged by an information. The procedure is similar to an indictment; the information is read in open court to the defendant.
Because of this constitutional requirement, both indictments and informations must be specific and state all of the elements of the crime with which the defendant is charged.
This section of the amendment is called the Confrontation Clause. A defendant must have an opportunity to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him or her to ensure that due-process rights are upheld and that witnesses’ statements are taken in open court, as opposed to hearsay statements, the accuracy of which cannot be determined.
A defendant also is allowed to call witnesses on his or her behalf. Many defense witnesses appear voluntarily, but defendants may request that the court issue a subpoena if they are concerned that a witness will not show.
Both the Fifth Amendment (through Miranda warnings) and the Sixth Amendment give a defendant the right to an attorney. The Sixth Amendment requirement, however, does not “attach” until after the defendant has been charged with a crime.
For example, if a person is arrested for burglary and spends the next 24 hours in jail, he or she is brought before a judge after those 24 hours and arraigned, where he or she is told of the charges and his or her rights. It is only after these judicial proceedings that the person has the right to an attorney. Under the Sixth Amendment, he or she does not have the right to an attorney before that.
It took several years before the Supreme Court ruled that every defendant has the right to an attorney, thereby obligating lower courts to provide attorneys to indigent defendants. While that is essentially the rule now, there is one exception: If no jail time can be given for the crime that the defendant is charged with, he or she has no constitutional right to an attorney. Many states, however, make attorneys available for everyone, even if the crime carries no jail sentence.
Because the majority of defendants are guaranteed an attorney, the Supreme Court has ruled that attorneys must be reasonably effective in their representation. Proving that an attorney was ineffective is difficult because attorneys are presumed to be engaged in effective trial strategy while representing a defendant.
Thus, if a defendant wants to prove that his or her attorney was ineffective, he or she must show that (1) his attorney was so deficient (2) that the deficiency overcomes the presumption of effective trial strategy and (3) that if it were not for the attorney’s deficient conduct, a different result was likely. While cases have been overturned because of ineffective assistance of counsel, the success of such a claim is rare.
Finally, the Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant has a right to represent himself or herself, although a judge may deny the request if the defendant suffers from mental illness or is otherwise found incompetent to defend himself or herself. If a defendant makes a request for self-representation, the judge must warn the defendant of the dangers and disadvantages of doing so.
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