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The Sixth Amendment And Criminal Trials


Protecting people from excessive and unwarranted punishment and criminal prosecution is one of the foundations of a just society.  The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, deal in various places with safeguards that protect people accused or suspected of crimes from unjust and excessive punishment.  You have probably heard various Constitutional amendments mentioned in the context of criminal cases.  For example, the First Amendment holds that most acts of speech are protected, meaning that people cannot be charged with crimes as a result of engaging in them.  Likewise, if a lawyer asks you directly whether you committed a specific illegal act, you have the right to plead the Fifth Amendment rather than admitting to the crime.  Especially if you decided to go to trial instead of seeking a plea deal, the Sixth Amendment is one of the amendments that has the biggest impact on your case.  Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains the rights guaranteed to defendants in criminal cases, pursuant to the Sixth Amendment.

What Does the Sixth Amendment Say About a Fair Trial?

People accused of crimes have the right to a jury trial; the state cannot coerce them into pleading guilty.  As for what constitutes a fair trial, the Sixth Amendment states that the trial must be “speedy” and “public.”  It does not specify a time frame by which a trial can be considered speedy or excessively delayed, but case law has interpreted the phrase “speedy trial” to mean that the state cannot excessively postpone the trial without a good reason.  Although the Sixth Amendment does not state this directly, it stands to reason that an excessively hasty trial would also be unfair, because both times deserve an opportunity to prepare their arguments and present their evidence.  As for a public trial, criminal trials are public unless the defendant requests a private trial.

Protecting Against Juror Bias

The Sixth Amendment indicates that defendants have the right to an impartial jury.  Therefore, jury selection is a contentious process in some criminal cases.  Both the prosecutors and the defendant’s attorneys have the right to interview jurors before the court selects them.  If the juror seems to have a bias that would get in the way of a fair trial, including prior knowledge of events related to the case, either side can request to exclude the prospective juror.  It can be very challenging to find unbiased jurors for cases that have received extensive media coverage.  The race or sex of a juror cannot, by itself, be a valid reason to exclude the juror.

Notifying Defendants of the Charges Against Them

Soon after the arrest, the court must hold a hearing called an arraignment.  During the arraignment, the judge must read the defendant a statement of the offenses with which the state is charging the defendant.  This statement is called an indictment.  After the arraignment, the defendant may plead guilty or not guilty.  If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will go to trial.

Summoning and Cross-Examining Witnesses

At trial, the defendant has the right to present evidence, which can include written statements and live testimony from witnesses, in addition to presenting documents, videos, and objects that might cast doubt on the prosecution’s claims that the defendant committed the alleged crime.  The witnesses may include people who were present at the scene of the alleged crime, as well as professionals with specialized knowledge that provides insights into whether and how the crime occurred.  The prosecution may also summon witnesses.  In a process called cross examination, each side may question the other’s witnesses in front of the jury.

The Right to Representation by an Attorney

In civil cases, whether you hire a lawyer or represent yourself is purely a matter of personal choice.  In criminal cases, it would not be fair to leave defendants to fend for themselves in cases that could result in imprisonment.  Therefore, the court will appoint public defenders to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire a defense lawyer.  If you want to represent yourself in criminal court instead of having a public defender represent you, you may request this, and the judge may approve or deny your request.

Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys

A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you understand and exercise your legal rights, whether you decide to go to trial or seek a plea deal.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.



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