the legitimate purposes of government is the punishment of those who violate the
rights of others through the commission of violent or forceful acts, such as murder,
rape, robbery, theft, burglary, or trespass. As the Framers understood, however,
the matter does not end there because an important inquiry immediately arises:
How do we ensure that people are not convicted of crimes they haven’t committed?
That’s the purpose of the Sixth Amendment — to protect the innocent
from being convicted and punished.
The Sixth Amendment reads as follows:
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 idea behind the right to a speedy trial is to ensure that a federal prosecutorial
hammer is not held over someone’s head for an indefinite period of time and
to prevent indefinite detentions of people accused of crimes. The importance of
this right was emphasized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Klopfer v. North Carolina
We hold here that the right to a speedy trial is as fundamental as any of the
rights secured by the Sixth Amendment. That right has its roots at the very foundation
of our English law heritage. Its first articulation in modern jurisprudence appears
to have been made in Magna Carta (1215), wherein it was written, “We will
sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right”;
but evidence of recognition of the right to speedy justice in even earlier times
is found in the Assize of Clarendon (1166).
In U.S. v. Ewell (1966), the Supreme Court stated that the provision is
“an important safeguard to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior
to trial, to minimize anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation and to
limit the possibility that long delay will impair the ability of an accused to
The idea of a public trial is to ensure that government prosecutorial actions
are exposed to public view, so as to discourage abuses of prosecutorial power.
The old English Star Chamber, whose proceedings were held in secret and which
was a model for prosecutorial abuse, comes to mind. So does Germany’s People’s
Court under the Hitler regime. As the Supreme Court stated in In Re Oliver
The traditional Anglo-American distrust for secret trials has been variously ascribed
to the notorious use of this practice by the Spanish Inquisition, to the excesses
of the English Court of Star Chamber, and to the French monarchy’s abuse
of the lettre de cachet. All of these institutions obviously symbolized a menace
to liberty…. Whatever other benefits the guarantee to an accused that his trial
be conducted in public may confer upon our society, the guarantee has always been
recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments
of persecution. Jury
trials and their locationAs
I pointed out in my January Freedom Daily
article, trial by jury is one of the ultimate safeguards of a free society because
of the power that the jury has to acquit an accused if it believes that the law
that he is accused of violating is an unjust law.
The reason that federal trials are required to be held in the state and district
where the crime was committed is to ensure that federal officials don’t require
a defendant to travel hundreds or thousands of miles away from where the witnesses
probably reside and where the defendant might live.
of the charges and confronting witnesses
The right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation requires a
formal written charge (i.e., a grand jury indictment) detailing the offense with
which the accused is charged, which better enables him to defend himself against
Among the most important rights is the right to confront the witnesses on whose
testimony the government is relying to prosecute the accused. This right involves
two important legal principles — hearsay and cross-examination.
Hearsay is a statement that is made by a person outside the courtroom and, therefore,
not subject to being questioned or challenged through cross-examination by the
accused or his lawyer. For example, suppose that during a criminal investigation,
witness Smith tells Officer Jones, “I saw Roberts shoot the victim.”
At trial, the government calls Officer Jones to the stand and asks him to relate
what witness Smith told him during the investigation. Officer Jones says, “He
told me that he personally saw the defendant shoot the victim.”
The officer’s statement would constitute hearsay because he’s relating
what someone else told him outside the courtroom. While Roberts’s attorney
could cross-examine the officer and challenge whether witness Smith actually told
him that, the problem that the defense attorney really faces is that he can’t
cross-examine witness Smith about the accuracy of his statement.
Why is cross-examination so important? Because the jury is then able to carefully
observe the demeanor of the witness as his version of the facts is being challenged
through a rigorous cross-examination. The jury is better able to judge whether
the witness is lying (which witnesses do sometimes) or telling the truth. As the
U.S. Supreme Court put it Pointer v. Texas (1965),
It cannot seriously be doubted at this late date that the right of cross-examination
is included in the right of an accused in a criminal case to confront the witnesses
against him. And probably no one, certainly no one experienced in the trial of
lawsuits, would deny the value of cross-examination in exposing falsehood and
bringing out the truth in the trial of a criminal case…. The fact that this
right appears in the Sixth Amendment of our Bill of Rights reflects the belief
of the Framers of those liberties and safeguards that confrontation was a fundamental
right essential to a fair trial in a criminal prosecution.
By the same token, the accused has the right “to have compulsory process
for obtaining witnesses in his favor.” What that means is that if the accused
needs the testimony of a reluctant or recalcitrant witness to help establish his
innocence, he has the right to secure the issuance of a federal subpoena, which
is served on the witness by a U.S. marshal and which orders the witness to appear
at trial, on pain of fine and imprisonment for failing to do so.
(Whether the compulsory-process clause violates libertarian principles is an interesting
issue for another time.)
Finally, the Sixth Amendment guarantees that a person accused of a crime has the
right to have an attorney defend him in court. The reason is obvious — given
the enormous resources of the government, the tremendous skill of government attorneys
and the complexities of a criminal trial, an accused would stand little chance
if he were required to defend himself. The Supreme Court explained in Powell
v. Alabama (1932),
The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend
the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has
small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he
is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is
good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid
of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon
incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible.
He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even
though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every
step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces
the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.
Finally, we should note that pursuant to the express language of the Sixth Amendment,
all these procedural rights belong not only to Americans but also foreigners whom
U.S. authorities charge with a crime.
Is the Sixth Amendment relevant today? You bet it is, especially given the Pentagon’s
use of military tribunals in another country, Cuba, for people accused of terrorism.
Ever since their arrest, people accused of terrorism at Guantanamo Bay have been
indefinitely detained and denied the right to counsel, due process of law, habeas
corpus, trial by jury, and even the right to know exactly what they are being
charged with. Most of the proceedings are as secret as they were in the Star Chamber
and in Hitler’s People’s Court. Moreover, the federal government is
doing everything it can to deny accused terrorist Zacharias Moussaoui the right
to cross-examine adverse witnesses and to summon favorable witnesses in his behalf
in his federal court prosecution.
Make no mistake about it: If the feds treat foreigners accused of terrorism in
this way, they’ll do the same to Americans. Just ask Jose Padilla, an American
whom the Pentagon has held in a military dungeon for almost three years and whom
they have denied all the rights enumerated in the Sixth Amendment.
Our ancestors bequeathed to us the finest criminal justice system in history,
a system in which every American should take great pride. As the great criminal
defense attorney Edward Bennett Williams put it, “Civil liberties are a great
heritage for Americans. They are not rights that the government gives to the people,
they are the rights that the people carved out for themselves when they created