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The Sixth Amendment


Text of Amendment:

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 Right to a Speedy Trial:

The "speedy trial" clause is intended to prevent long-term incarceration and detention without trial--which amounts to a prison sentence without a guilty verdict. The Sixth Amendment does not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which serves as a good example of what some law enforcement communities might have considered doing to entire communities of low-income Americans were it not for the speedy trial clause.

The Right to a Public Trial:

Although public trials would ordinarily seem to be a condition that would work against the defendant, given the likely humiliating effect, they also ensure that the proceedings are not conducted in an underhanded way. One question currently under debate in the court system is whether televised trials are a good idea--do they further protect this right, or do they just exploit it?

The Right to an Impartial Jury:

Not only must jury members not have improper biases before the trial begins, but they must also not be improperly prejudiced by the case or by media coverage of the case. Since juries are by definition made up of members of the community, and human beings in general tend to be good at developing prejudices, this can be a challenge.

...Unless You're a Kid:

Juvenile defendants are not entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. This is consistent with the overall higher level of privacy granted in juvenile courts, where sentences are less harsh and criminal records are generally kept private.

To Be Confronted with Witnesses:

Some courts are currently wrestling with the issue of whether victims who are not emotionally prepared to testify directly in front of their accusers can testify on closed-circuit television instead. This is particularly tempting in cases of child abuse, where the victim--already asked to courageously speak about a traumatic event on the record and in public--could be intimidated into silence by the perpetrator's presence.

Assistance of Counsel:

Everyone tried for a criminal offense is given the right to an attorney, but there is nothing approaching an equal right to an attorney. Public defenders, who take on the cases of those who can't afford private lawyers, are notoriously overworked, underpaid, and--because of the difficulty of the job and the pay scale--not always especially good at what they do. This means that a wealthy defendant is much more likely to be acquitted than a poor defendant.
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