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Trial Rights

Just as people have rights during the arrest and investigation stages, they also have rights during a trial — beginning with the right to a fair and speedy trial. This article covers trial rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, it summarizes the following rights:

If you have more questions about a defendant's rights, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney near you.

Sixth Amendment: Rights of the Accused

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the following:

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 Sixth Amendment packs a lot of rights for criminal defendants into one sentence. This article explains these rights in more detail.

Right to a Fair Trial

The Sixth Amendment does not explicitly guarantee the right to a fair trial in a criminal case. But, the combination of rights it and other amendments guarantee ensures a criminal defendant receives a fair trial.

Right to a Jury Trial

Everyone facing criminal charges has the right to a jury trial. The right is not absolute. Whether a defendant has a right to a jury trial depends on the seriousness of the charges. If the maximum sentence for their crime — if convicted — is six months or less, they do not necessarily have a right to a jury trial.

In most states, the guarantee of a trial by an impartial jury means that 12 jurors must reach a unanimous verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty." An impartial jury consists of the defendant's peers. It also means the jurors do not have any bias against the defendant.

The jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to convict them. If the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict, it results in a "hung jury." In that case, the judge may declare a mistrial. The prosecutor may then call for a new trial.

Right to a Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to a speedy trial. This means their criminal trial must happen within a reasonably short time of their arrest.

Most states have laws determining a "reasonable time" to have a trial. Whether a trial is, in fact, speedy enough is determined by the circumstances of the case and the reasons for any delays, regardless of the local statutory language. If the court decides there has been an unreasonable delay, it may dismiss the case.

A defendant may waive their right to a speedy trial. They may choose to do so if they or their criminal defense attorney need more time to prepare their defense.

The Right to Call and Confront Witnesses

Criminal defendants have a right to present evidence and call witnesses on their own behalf. Also, they have a right to confront any witnesses the prosecution calls against them. This right is also known as the confrontation clause.

The confrontation clause allows defendants to cross-examine witnesses called against them. It applies to in-court and out-of-court statements introduced as evidence at trial. The confrontation clause lets defendants challenge such statements for bias, truthfulness, and validity, among other things.

The Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that every criminal defendant has the right to legal counsel. The right applies to all critical stages of a criminal proceeding. The right only applies in criminal cases; it does not apply to civil cases.

Typically, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches at an arraignment hearing, where the defendant gets notified of the charges against them.

The Sixth Amendment says that the court will appoint one if a defendant can't afford an attorney. Such a defendant is indigent. Check out FindLaw's Criminal Rights section for more information about the right to counsel.

Right of Notice of Accusation

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that criminal defendants must get told of the criminal charges against them. The court notifies the defendant of the charges against them at an arraignment hearing.

In criminal law, the government files an indictment against a defendant. Every state has grand juries, but about half of the states only use them in felony cases. Grand jurors decide whether to indict the defendant. The indictment brings formal charges against a defendant in felony cases.

An arraignment hearing typically follows an indictment. The arraignment hearing is usually the defendant's first court appearance in a criminal case. It signifies the start of the criminal trial process. The arraignment informs the defendant of the nature of the charges so that the defendant can prepare a defense.

Double Jeopardy

Double jeopardy refers to a person's right not to face prosecution multiple times for the same offense. The double jeopardy protection comes from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It prevents the government from endlessly prosecuting a defendant and furthers judicial efficiency.

Double jeopardy attaches in a jury trial when the court swears in the jurors. In a bench trial, where a judge is the fact finder, jeopardy attaches when the court swears in the first witness.

Some actions do not trigger double jeopardy protection. Dismissal of an indictment (for other than the merits of the case), for example, does not prevent the government from filing a new indictment.

New or additional court proceedings may not begin after one of four events:

  • After a jury's verdict of acquittal
  • After a trial court's dismissal
  • After the trial, the court grants a mistrial — in some cases, but not all
  • On appeal after a conviction

The concept of double jeopardy is complex and varies between states. If you have more questions about this right, check out FindLaw's Criminal Rights section. Or, contact a criminal defense lawyer near you.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution gives defendants the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. This right protects against dangerous conditions of confinement and treatment by corrections personnel. There is no all-encompassing definition of "cruel and unusual."

In a criminal trial, the constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment means the prosecution cannot subject a defendant to prolonged delays or retrials. If they do, the prisoners may file a civil rights lawsuit. If they win, the court may dismiss their case.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal defendants must understand their trial rights. These rights are critical from a due process and criminal procedure standpoint. If the government violates these rights, it can significantly affect the defendant's case.

If you have more questions about your trial rights, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney. An attorney can provide invaluable legal advice, including the following:

If the government has charged you with a crime, having a criminal defense attorney is essential to protect your legal interests. Contact one today if you are facing criminal charges.

Learn About Trial Rights

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