The term "fair trial" is often discussed as a necessary element to ensure that justice prevails in society. Although the American criminal justice system is intended to provide a criminal defendant with a fair trial, it can be difficult to ascertain what this means in practice. To answer the question "what is a fair trial?" it's important to understand that the concepts of fairness are primarily established by constitutional protections.
What is a Fair Trial: Foundation of Rights
The U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights (under the Sixth Amendment) guarantees the right to a speedy trial with an impartial jury for criminal defendants in federal courts. The 14th Amendment's Due Process clause extends these rights to state courts.
While the Constitution expressly outlines the right to a jury trial, it doesn't 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:
- The right to an impartial jury;
- The right to due process of law;
- The right to confront/call witnesses; and
- The right to legal counsel.
When any of these rights are violated, it can lead to the determination that a trial was unfair and can result in the reversal of a verdict or the granting of a new trial.
Meaning of "Impartial Jury"
A criminal defendant is entitled to have a trial with an impartial jury of their peers. The specific meaning of "impartial jury" isn't defined in the Constitution; rather, it was established via tradition and case law and has evolved over time. Generally, it refers to jurors not having a stake in the outcome of the case and not approaching the case with any bias against the defendant.
Part of the "impartiality" of jurors has also been tied to having twelve jurors, although the Supreme Court suggests that this specific number is a "historical accident" and less of a strict requirement. However, because of the tradition and reliability of having a jury of twelve, it certainly contributes to the appearance of fairness in a criminal trial.
The connection between 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 a jury who doesn't have a bias or prejudice against a defendant shaped by media reporting.
The Right to Due Process of Law
The right to due process prevents the government from arbitrarily infringing on an individual's rights without some type of formal procedure. This is a broad area because due process includes many different rights and requires the government to respect the legal rights that the defendant is owed. In the context of criminal trials, the Supreme Court has found that a denial of due process occurs when there's an absence of fairness such that it "fatally inflicts the trial." For example, when the accused is compelled to appear before the jury clothed in prison garb because the 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 their witnesses and cross-examine them, but it also gives them the right to present evidence and call witnesses who support their case. Sometimes there's a conflict between infringing on the rights of the accused and following the rules of evidence or trial procedure. For example, a defendant may be denied the ability to present testimony of witnesses about matters that were revealed out of court on hearsay grounds, but the Supreme Court ruled that this could constitute a denial of the defendant's rights.
The Right to Legal Counsel
Anyone facing criminal charges has the right to legal counsel. This means that they can contact an attorney to find out about their rights and to have the attorney represent their legal interests. Not only does the defendant have a right to have an attorney, but also the right to an adequate defense. An attorney can fail in their duties by not providing representation that is sufficient to ensure a fair trial, like failing to present exculpatory evidence or being under the influence during trial.
What is a Fair Trial Look Like Your State? Find Out More With an Attorney's Help
Fair trials are an essential part of the U.S. judicial system that help to prevent miscarriages of justice. After contemplating what constitutes a fair trial, you may still have important questions about how the law impacts you or someone you know who's facing charges. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today for helpful insight.