What Is a Fair Trial?

The connection between the media and the judicial system can also factor into a jury's impartiality. While a media presence in courtrooms can threaten judicial fairness in general, it can have an especially troublesome impact on securing an unbiased jury.

The right to a fair trial is an essential aspect of the justice system. This fundamental right applies to both civil and criminal cases. But what does a “fair trial" really mean? To answer this question, it is vital to understand what the U.S. Constitution establishes as “fair" regarding a trial.

The Right to a Fair Trial

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause extends these rights to state courts. The right to a fair trial extends to both civil and criminal proceedings. While the Constitution expressly outlines the right to a jury trial, it does not explicitly include the right to a fair trial. However, in guaranteeing other trial rights, the Constitution provides the safeguards for a fair trial. Such rights include:

If the government violates one of these rights, it can lead to the determination that the trial was unfair. Such a determination can result in an appellate court reversing a verdict. Alternatively, the court may grant a new trial.

Meaning of Impartial Jury

A criminal defendant is entitled to a trial with an impartial jury of their peers. The Constitution does not define an impartial jury. Instead, case law established its meaning over time. Generally, it refers to jurors who make it through jury selection and do not have a stake in the case's outcome. It also assumes they approach the case without any bias against the defendant.

Part of the impartiality of jurors has also been tied to having twelve jurors. The Supreme Court, however, suggests that this specific number is a historical accident, so it's not exactly a strict requirement. Because of the tradition and reliability of having a jury of twelve, however, it certainly contributes to the appearance of fairness in a criminal trial.

The Right to Due Process of Law

The right to due process prevents the government from arbitrarily infringing on an individual's rights without a formal procedure. Due process is broad, as it includes many different rights and requires the government to respect the legal rights owed to the defendant. In the context of criminal trials, the Supreme Court has found due process is denied when there's an absence of fairness that fatally "infects" the trial.

For example, suppose the court compels the accused to appear before the jury clothed in prison garb. The accused person's appearance in that attire might damage the accused's presumption of innocence with the jurors.

The Right To Confront and Call Witnesses

The U.S. Constitution gives criminal defendants the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. It also gives them the right to present evidence and call witnesses who support their case. Sometimes, a conflict arises between infringing on the rights of the accused and following the rules of evidence or trial procedure. For example, in one case, the court denied the defendant the ability to present witness testimony about matters revealed out of court.

The trial court determined the statements were hearsay and excluded them. The Supreme Court ultimately heard the case. The Court ruled that this could constitute a denial of the defendant's rights where there were "substantial assurances of trustworthiness" of the statements.

The Right to Legal Counsel

Anyone facing criminal charges has the right to legal counsel. This means they can contact an attorney to find out about their rights and have the attorney represent their legal interests. A defendant also has the right to an adequate defense. An attorney can fail in their duties by not providing sufficient representation to ensure a fair trial. For example, an attorney may fail to present exculpatory evidence.

The Right to a Speedy Trial

As noted above, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial. This prevents the government from holding a defendant indefinitely. It also ensures the court holds the public hearing with evidence that has not degraded over time. The court may dismiss the case if the trial does not occur within a reasonable time. The Constitution does not, however, set definite guidelines as to what constitutes a speedy trial. The general standard is the trial must occur within a reasonable time. 

Some states have passed laws that set specific deadlines to hold a trial. If a state does not have such guidelines, they resort to the constitutional default of “as soon as reasonably possible." A defendant may waive their right to a speedy trial to allow adequate time to prepare their defense.

What Does a Fair Trial Look Like in Your State? Find Out More With an Attorney's Help

Fair trials are an essential part of the U.S. judicial system. They are a vital component of a democratic society and help further the interests of justice. Moreover, a fair hearing is a human right recognized by countries worldwide

After contemplating what constitutes a fair trial in our criminal justice system, you may still have important questions about your Constitutional rights. If so, consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer near you. An experienced criminal defense attorney knows the legal system and can provide valuable legal advice in any legal dispute.

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