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Amendment VI – Criminal Prosecutions – Jury Trial, Right to Confront and to Counsel (1791)

The United States Bill of Rights lays down the rights available to defendants during criminal prosecutions in federal courts.  The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitutions is a part of the Bill of Rights and it guarantees the rights to speedy trial, public trial and trial by an impartial jury.  This right brings along with it the right to confront witnesses against the accused and the right to be assisted by counsel.  The right is fundamental in nature and is imposed on the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment reads as follows: “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 where in 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.”  Essentially, the Sixth Amendment passes on seven rights to criminal defendants and they are explained below:

  1. The foremost right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is the right to a speedy trial in criminal cases.  To determine if a delay in completion of trial is justified or not, courts look into the following factors:[i]
    1. A delay of more than a year is generally considered unreasonable.
    2. If the delay was secured to ensure the presence of an important   witness, then it might be reasonable.  However a delay simply for the prosecution’s advantage is unreasonable.
    3. If a defendant agreed to delay the trial initially because it worked      to his/her benefit he/she cannot claim that the delay was unreasonable at a later stage.
    4. Harm or prejudice caused to the defendant because of the delay.

    If an unreasonably delayed trial is successfully challenged, a reversal or dismissal might be the consequence.  Because the defendant’s rights were violated by state action, there is no other relief possible.

  2. A defendant also has a right to a public trial.  Publicity ensures that there is restraint on abuse of judicial power.  However, if excess publicity might hamper the defendant’s right to due process, public access can be restricted.
  3. The right to jury trial is granted to criminal defendants to ensure that there is no oppression by government.  This safeguards defendants from corrupt or cunning prosecutors, and prejudiced judges.
  4. The right to confront witnesses is a two-fold right.  It gives defendants the right to be present at trial as well as the right to confront any or all witnesses that the prosecution is likely to produce against them.  The right to be present at trial can be waived, but not easily.  A defendant’s absence at trial cannot lead to an automatic waiver of the right to confront.  Only if the defendant continues to be absent despite a court’s warning that his/her absence might result in a wavier of their right to be present and that the trial will continue in his/her absence, can it be considered waived.
  5. The right to have effective assistance of counsel entitles all defendants to representation by a competent attorney who’s aim is to protect the defendant’s rights. If a defendant can not afford his/her own attorney the court will have to appoint one for him/her.
  6. The amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the charges levied against him.
  7. The amendment also grants criminal defendants the right to self-representation.  A defendant has the right to choose to be represented by counsel or to waive counsel.  However, the state could deny the waiver if it finds that the defendant’s rights would not be adequately protected without counsel.  

Initially, the Sixth Amendment rights were guaranteed only with respect to the federal government.  In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted and the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the Due Process Clause. Presently, all Sixth Amendment rights have been incorporated and thus are applicable to all states as well.

[i] Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (U.S. 1972)

Inside Amendment VI – Criminal Prosecutions – Jury Trial, Right to Confront and to Counsel (1791)