Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

May 8, 2013

Scout Report: Can I get a witness?

By Clinton Gill
Glade Sun editor

CROSSVILLE — The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution describes seven separate rights, the first three of which I discussed last week:

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.

I never will forget about a situation I found myself in when I was in the seventh grade. Through the grapevine of adolescent whispers I had heard that a ninth grader was looking for me because he wanted to fight. Now, I had never even met this kid. At the time, I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. Needless to say, I was a bit confused about what his beef with me was but, regardless of the reason, my reputation was at stake. Fighting, for me, has always been like jumping in a mud puddle – I'll do everything I can to avoid it, but once I'm in it, I like to roll around until I'm completely covered from head to toe.

So, anyway, as I squared off with the kid in front of a crowd that had gathered behind the football field like Romans in the Colosseum, I asked him, "What's your problem, why do you want to fight me?" To which he replied "None of your damn business!" I still chuckle about the irony in that statement every time I think about it.

An "arraignment" is a formal accusation where specific charges are presented to you, to include dates, times, exactly what supposedly happened and exactly what law was broken. The Arraignment Clause was very important to the founders, since many had come to the New World to escape religious and political persecution.

The notion that people have a right to know what they have been charged with is second nature in today's society. Most Americans couldn't imagine life any other way. However, that was not always the case. Remember, everything in the Constitution as it was originally ratified stemmed from the Founding Fathers' direct experience as well as their exhaustive understanding of history.

In England, it was quite common for the government, be it church or kings, to bring people who disagreed with them before the courts, where the dissenters would be sentenced to prison without ever finding out what the charges were against them. Prior to the 1100s, it was possible to be imprisoned or executed on accusations alone; no proof was necessary. Villagers could put a pointy hat and nose on a woman, call her a witch and have her burned at the stake. If that sounds like a scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," that's because it is. As ridiculous as their comedy may seem, it's actually historically accurate (Terry Jones is a medieval historian.), albeit presented in satirical fashion.

The Arraignment Clause protection works to ensure that a crime has actually been committed by requiring specific charges to be levied before a person can be tried. Without it, liberty could be taken at the whim of corrupt officials.

The Confrontation Clause asserts a defendant's right to be confronted by the witnesses against them. The purpose of this protection is not so that witnesses can be intimidated by the accused, rather so that judges and juries can have the advantage of observing the demeanor of the person leveling accusations. Moreover, it gives the defendant a chance to cross-examine anyone who makes statements against them, thereby increasing the opportunity for the truth to be exposed. Prior to this guarantee, the accuser didn't even have to be in the courtroom, as it was in the the landmark case against Sir Walter Raleigh (famous for establishing the first British colony in America).  Raleigh had been implicated in treason against the king by a letter that was written by one of the conspirators, who is thought to have written it in an attempt to save his own skin after being caught in a plot. The letter was read to the jury without giving Raleigh the opportunity to cross-examine his alleged co-conspirator. In 1603, Raleigh was convicted and eventually beheaded. Later, one of his trial judges said, "the justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh."

The Compulsory Process Clause allows the defendant to call upon witnesses who may help his or her case. This clause serves two functions: first that you may call witnesses who can vouch for your innocence, and second that the court will subpoena a witness that refuses to testify on your behalf should they have knowledge of your innocence. Prior to the Bill of Rights, it was both English and colonial practice not to allow a person to testify on their own behalf. The reasoning behind this being that the testimony of people who were accused was thought to be unreliable due to their vested personal interest in the outcome. However, the accused may be able to provide proof that they were somewhere else when the crime was committed or know something about who really did it. Being able to defend one's self is a hallmark of freedom. 

And finally, the Right to Counsel Clause was established simply for the fact that the legal system can be too complicated for the average person to navigate. Today, there are more than 4,500 criminal offenses in the U.S. Code, and tens of thousands of offenses in the Code of Federal Regulations, which runs more than 157,000 pages long. Most lawyers even have trouble keeping up.

As the supreme law of the land, the Sixth Amendment makes one thing abundantly clear, if someone accuses you of something, it is your "damn business."