23 September 2009

What Have I Done???

Alright, alright, I know; I said I would be "speedy" with my next post on the Bill of Rights...I am not pleased that I am so late in writing about the Sixth Amendment, especially given what it covers. I am going to give you a little quiz right now; what does the Sixth Amendment entail? If you guessed it entails the right of an accused to a speedy trial, you would be correct. In fact here is what the Sixth Amendment says verbatim: "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 defence."

Broken down, what we see is the Sixth Amendment "guarantees" a speedy, public trial by a jury of one's peers, ensuring the accused knows what crime the are accused of committing, the right to have an attorney to defend the accused in court and the right to have favorable witnesses testify on the accused's behalf. Pretty straightforward don't you think? Well it's not quite that simple, folks.

First off, there is no set time limit to define a "speedy" trial. In fact, the idea of a speedy trial is outlined like this: A delay of a year or more from the date of arrest or indictment, whichever happened first, is termed "presumptively prejudicial". The prosecution may not excessively delay the trial for its own advantage, but a trial may be delayed to secure the presence of an absent witness or other practical considerations. If a defendant agrees to a delay when it works to his own benefit, he cannot later claim that his Sixth Amendment right was violated.

Ok, so what about a "public" trial? Well, in 1966 the Supreme Court ruled that the right to a public trial is not absolute. What that means is, if excessive publicity could possibly affect the outcome of a trial, that trial can be closed to the public. Simply put, if the government thinks publicity could harm their case against the accused, they can ask for a closed hearing. Also, if the accused feels that publicity could affect his right to a fair trial, he can request the trial be closed as well...but the burden is on the accused to show proof that publicity would affect the trial.

Ok, so now we know that a speedy and public trial has several different meanings, but what about a trial by jury? Surely any accused person has the right to be tried by a jury, right? Wrong. If you have ever been to traffic court, you know what I am talking about here. Jury trials are dependent on the nature of the crime that was committed. If one is accused of stealing and the maximum punishment allowed is six months or less, a jury trial is not required. Likewise, the requirement to have 12 jurors and a unanimous verdict is not absolute. In the Fourteenth Amendment the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while requiring States to provide jury trials for serious crimes, does not incorporate all the elements of a jury trial within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment and does not require jury unanimity...in other words, a defendant can be tried by six people and a majority vote is all that is needed to either convict or exonerate.

A defendant also has the right to know what charges are being brought, the courts cannot just have someone arrested and tried without them knowing what they are accused of...I'm pretty sure if you are accused of a crime, you are going to know what crime you are being accused of. Other defendant's rights include the right to confront his accuser and witnesses, the right to have an attorney represent him, and the right to represent himself.

Now there have been arguments in the past that this Amendment has been abused by career criminals in order to intimidate witnesses, rig juries, and essentially get off scot-free. In some cases this may be true but you are more likely to see this on Law & Order than in real life. Now I know I will probably be publicly flogged for saying that but, to me, it is true. Our justice system is the finest in the world and, despite a few flaws here and there, is the most fair to everyone. If you don't believe me, check out some of the outrageous stories you read in your email about idiots suing companies for their own idiocy (Winnebago being sued by the guy who crashed his motor home because he set it on cruise control and went to the back to make coffee is a good one), check out the hoax-buster site www.snopes.com. Most of the stories you and I have heard over the years are urban legends.

So, let's wrap this up, shall we? By virtue of the Sixth Amendment, one is not subjected to a kangaroo court, one will not languish for years in jail waiting for a trial, and one will always have the opportunity to defend one's self. So why are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay not afforded these rights? Well, in my opinion, it is because they are NOT citizens of the United States and therefore are not allowed the rights and freedoms provided for citizens in the Bill of Rights.

Whether or not you agree with me on that point is moot. Yes, the Amendment does not specifically mention "citizens" per se but it does say, "...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..." Those prisoners committed their crimes not on US soil but in the Middle East and the last time I checked there were no US states over there. Kinda proves my point, doesn't it?

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