By Clinton Gill
Glade Sun editor
"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 can be broken down into seven rights, all pertaining to criminal court proceedings. This amendment focuses solely on the rights of a person accused of committing a crime by the government:
1. The right to a speedy trial.
2. The right to a public trial.
3. The right to be judged by an impartial jury.
4. The right to be notified of the nature and circumstances of the alleged crime.
5. The right to confront witnesses who will testify against the accused.
6. The right to find witnesses who will speak in favor of the accused.
7. The right to have a lawyer.
The right to a speedy trial is an ancient liberty, having been around for more than 800 years in English law. In practice, the English government had a longstanding reputation for abusing the law. The Speedy Trial Clause serves two main purposes – to prevent the accused from rotting in a cell before guilt has been determined, and to ensure the defendant's right to a fair trial. On the first, locking people up without trial was a practice used extensively in England throughout history. Pre-trial incarceration is a deprivation of liberty; it puts strains on family relations, employment, financial resources (which could weaken the defendant's ability to defend themselves in trial), and the innocent suffer prolonged defamation of reputation. On the second purpose, to ensure a fair trial, the longer it takes for a trial to begin, the more likely it is that witnesses will die or disappear, memories will fade and evidence will disappear or be destroyed. Both sides of a case, the prosecution and defense, are affected by these factors, however, ultimately it is only the defendant's life, liberty and property that are at stake in criminal proceedings.
The term "speedy" can be rather ambiguous. To clarify the clause, Congress enacted the Federal Speedy Trial Act of 1974, which asserts that charges must be filed within 30 days of an arrest for a federal crime and a trial must commence within 70 days. If a Speedy Trial violation occurs, new trials are not allowed. Instead, the conviction is thrown out without the possibility of a retrial. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally that's the rule.
The right to public trial is also garnered from ancient English jurisprudence. Transparency is essential to maintain the legitimacy of any criminal justice system; without it, corruption would most assuredly infect the proceedings (more so than it currently does). Witnesses are less likely to lie if they feel someone may call them out; judges are less likely to be corrupted in full view of the public; and prosecutors are less likely to break the rules when there are more referees watching. The right to public trial should not be confused with an obligation of the defendant to undergo public humiliation; it is a personal right and does not extend to the media or general public. Friends and relatives must be permitted to attend trial but can be removed if they become disruptive. Again, there are certain exceptions.
The right to be judged by an impartial jury is a mechanism that diffuses power into a group rather than allowing the authority to convict someone rest in the hands of one person. Not only does this protect against overt corruption, it shields defendants from the internal bias of human nature. Jurors are selected from a pool in order to weed out anyone who may have a preconceived judgment.
I would argue that the original design of our system is the most equitable way to mete out justice. However, over time the system has been perverted. Ironically, one of the major sources of this corruption arises from one of our most important guarantors of freedom – the First Amendment. The modern day media has been transformed into a source of entertainment rather than acting as a force against tyranny. The importance of reporting facts and getting the story right has been trumped by the fight for immediate relevancy. Modern technology allows us more access to the world than ever before – even the average "poor" family in the United States has a computer and cable TV. In high profile cases, it is extremely difficult to find people who haven't been watching the story as it unfolds. The latest example of this was shamefully displayed by the media coverage of the recent attack in Boston. There were so many contradictory stories and disinformation being reported that no one had any clue what was really going on. The evidence against the bomber was laid out in such a fashion that it will be next to impossible to find a jury that doesn't already have their verdict decided before the trial even begins. What happens when the certainty of guilt or innocence is more elusive, or worse, when the media actively attempts to influence public opinion. Look at the case of George Zimmerman – NBC news actually edited the 911 call to make Zimmerman appear to be predatory and motivated by racism. Those are only a couple recent examples of which there are many to choose from.
As citizens of a free republic, we are ultimately responsible for the system we live under. We must do better at holding these institutions to account; otherwise, our inaction will only guarantee justice for some, and that is not justice at all.