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 to the Constitution of the United states focuses directly on the rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions. Specifically,
- Right to a speedy trial – A “speedy” trial basically means that the defendant is tried for the alleged crimes within a reasonable time after being arrested. Although most states have laws that set forth the time in which a trial must take place after charges are filed, often the issue of whether or not a trial is in fact “speedy” enough under the Sixth Amendment comes down to the circumstances of the case itself, and the reasons for any delays. In the most extreme situations, when a court determines that the delay between arrest and trial was unreasonable and prejudicial to the defendant, the court dismisses the case altogether.
- Right to a public trial – The Supreme Court has cited many civic and process-related purposes served by open trials: they help to ensure the criminal defendant a fair and accurate adjudication of guilt or innocence; they provide a public demonstration of fairness; they discourage perjury, the misconduct of participants, and decisions based on secret bias or partiality. Open trials educate the public about the criminal justice system, give legitimacy to it, and have the prophylactic effect of enabling the public to see justice done. Though the Sixth Amendment expressly grants the accused a right to a public trial, the Court has found the right to be so fundamental to the fairness of the adversary system that it is independently protected against state deprivation by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The First Amendment right of public access to court proceedings also weighs in favor of openness.
- Right to an impartial jury – “The guarantees of jury trial in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a profound judgment about the way in which law should be enforced and justice administered. A right to jury trial is granted to criminal defendants in order to prevent oppression by the Government. Those who wrote our constitutions knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority. The framers of the constitutions strove to create an independent judiciary but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action. Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge. . . . The jury trial provisions . . . reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power—a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges. Fear of unchecked power . . . found expression in the criminal law in this insistence upon community participation in the determination of guilt or innocence.”
- Right to be informed of nature and cause of the accusation – The constitutional right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation entitles the defendant to insist that the indictment apprise him of the crime charged with such reasonable certainty that he can make his defense and protect himself after judgment against another prosecution on the same charge. No indictment is sufficient if it does not allege all of the ingredients that constitute the crime. Where the language of a statute is, according to the natural import of the words, fully descriptive of the offense, it is sufficient if the indictment follows the statutory phraseology, but where the elements of the crime have to be ascertained by reference to the common law or to other statutes, it is not sufficient to set forth the offense in the words of the statute. The facts necessary to bring the case within the statutory definition must also be alleged. If an offense cannot be accurately and clearly described without an allegation that the accused is not within an exception contained in the statutes, an indictment that does not contain such allegation is defective. Despite the omission of obscene particulars, an indictment in general language is good if the unlawful conduct is described so as reasonably to inform the accused of the nature of the charge sought to be established against him. The Constitution does not require the government to furnish a copy of the indictment to an accused. The right to notice of accusation is so fundamental a part of procedural due process that the states are required to observe it.
- Right to confront witnesses – The primary object of the Confrontation Clause is to prevent depositions of ex parte affidavits . . . being used against the prisoner in lieu of a personal examination and cross-examination of the witness in which the accused has an opportunity not only of testing the recollection and sifting the conscience of the witness, but of compelling him to stand face to face with the jury in order that they may look at him, and judge by his demeanor upon the stand and the manner in which he gives his testimony whether he is worthy of belief. The right of confrontation is “one of the fundamental guarantees of life and liberty . . . long deemed so essential for the due protection of life and liberty that it is guarded against legislative and judicial action by provisions in the Constitution of the United States and in the constitutions of most if not of all the States composing the Union.” Before 1965, when the Court held the right to be protected against state abridgment, it had little need to clarify the relationship between the right of confrontation and the hearsay rule, because it could control the admission of hearsay through exercise of its supervisory powers over the inferior federal courts.
- Right of have assistance of counsel – By federal statute, an individual tried for a capital crime in a federal court was entitled to appointed counsel, and, by judicial practice, the federal courts came to appoint counsel frequently for indigents charged with noncapital crimes, although it may be assumed that the practice fell short at times of what is now constitutionally required. State constitutions and statutes gradually ensured a defendant the right to appear in state trials with retained counsel, but the states were far less uniform on the existence and scope of a right to appointed counsel. It was in the context of a right to appointed counsel that the Supreme Court began to develop its modern jurisprudence on a constitutional right to counsel generally, first applying procedural due process analysis under the Fourteenth Amendment to state trials, also finding a Sixth Amendment based right to appointed counsel in federal prosecutions, and eventually applying this Sixth Amendment based right to the states.