Criminal Constitution: The Sixth Amendment

January 1, 2021 | By Shane Phelps Law
Criminal Constitution: The Sixth Amendment

Welcome to the third installment of our Criminal Constitution Series, where we break down important amendments to the U.S. Constitution that are the foundations for our criminal justice system. This month we're covering the Sixth Amendment.

The Gang's All Here

Most of what we associate with the criminal justice system is contained in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

This amendment includes:

  • The right to a speedy and public trial
  • The right to a lawyer
  • The right to an impartial jury
  • The right to know who your accusers are
  • The right to legal counsel during questioning

These are some of the fundamental rights and privileges that are awarded to those accused of a crime. If you've ever been arrested or even watched a crime show, you're familiar with the concept of Miranda Rights – the set of rights read to you by the arresting officer.

Miranda Rights are based mainly on the Sixth Amendment, and law enforcement is required to read these rights to you during arrest so you can make arrangements for a lawyer and protect your freedom to refuse questioning.

History of the Sixth Amendment

During the early days of this country, the justice system was less of a system and more of a freelance occupation for a handful of citizens. Local sheriffs were responsible for peacekeeping and ensuring the public's safety, but there were no police, prosecutors, or semblance of due process.

In most cases, the victim would bring charges, and the accused would be left to fend for themselves as the town watched on. Most early-American trials were like shouting matches as victims, defendants, and lookers-on argued over the details, and many of these 'trials' ended abruptly.

Rudimentary juries were often familiar or even related to the people involved in the case and had their own opinions and goals. While these early juries operated under a crude system, they carried the most responsibility by questioning witnesses and deciding whether the defendant would live or die.

The men who wrote the Sixth Amendment saw the need for a better process and created a justice system with checks and balances, failsafes, and procedures. The result? Our criminal justice system today.

Fair Trial

One of the most significant points in the Sixth Amendment is the right to a fair trial. This includes the rights to an impartial jury, a speedy trial, and an attorney. While the phrase "speedy and public" is a little vague, the implications are significant.

In some cases, the time it takes to begin the trial and pass sentencing is almost as important as the case itself. For example, if a trial takes too long, some evidence may decay or be compromised. On the other hand, if a trial is too short, there is a question of whether due process was followed or if the judge ignored critical evidence to move the case along.

In the O.J. Simpson trial, his infamous gloves were moved from an evidence locker to cold storage and back again, which may have impacted the fit and condition of the evidence. This case is also an excellent example of what it means to have an impartial jury.

Hundreds of jurors were selected for the Simpson case, and many of them had a conflict of interest or connection to the defendant that would have swayed their vote. If the jury is not impartial, the trial cannot be fair.

Additionally, while those accused of a crime can represent themselves in court, having an attorney can make or break the case. Legal counselors have experience and knowledge of the law that allows them to present evidence and persuade the jury on the defendant's behalf. This level of expertise is available to everyone, thanks to the Sixth Amendment.

Gideon v. Wainwright: Representation Matters

One of the most notable cases related to the Sixth Amendment is the case of Clarence Earl Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright.

In this case, Gideon was charged with breaking and entering. He appeared before the court without a lawyer but requested that the court appoint one for him. The court refused, and Gideon defended himself only to be sentenced to five years in a Florida state prison.

After his sentencing, Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition that argued that the court's decision violated his constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment. In most cases, habeas corpus is a writ or formal request for a person to be brought before a judge.

Gideon's petition was denied, but later, Justice Hugo L. Black authored an opinion that should the defendant be unable to afford an attorney, the court should appoint one for them unless they refuse counsel.

Powell v. Alabama: A Decidedly Unfair Trial

In the case of Ozie Powell v. Alabama, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women. Officials raced through pretrial motions and sprinted to the final decision to execute all nine men. Three trials took a single day, and the attorneys appointed to each defendant did nothing to defend their clients besides show up in court.

This case was not only a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment but there was also a concern that the court rushed through the trial because of racial prejudice. The Scottsboro Nine were saved from execution but suffered emotional trauma that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

The Supreme Court found that this case was a gross violation of the Constitution, and it has been used as a prime example of the importance of a fair trial.

The Axis of Justice

The Sixth Amendment is the axis on which the rest of the justice system spins. Not every criminal case goes to trial, but the right to an attorney is crucial for anyone accused of a crime, and while cases can take years to go to trial, they must not progress at the cost of freedom and the rights of the accused.

Want to know more about the Constitution? Keep up with our Criminal Constitution Series here on the Atticus Files!