Right to a Speedy Trial
Many people are aware of at least some of their constitutional rights during a criminal investigation. They know less, however, about the trial process. This is partly because a large portion of suspects are either released or take a plea-deal long before a trial ever gets under way. It is also because the trial process can be very different depending on the defendant, the crime, or the legal strategy employed. I will attempt to cover the basics in this article, but you should always talk to a competent attorney about specific strategies for your case.
6th Amendment Guarantees
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every person accused of a crime has a right to a jury trial, along with a right to confront witnesses, obtain his/her own witnesses, and have competent representation. This may be one of the most important parts of the Constitution from a criminal perspective because it is the foundation of our system of justice. Without the protections afforded in the Sixth Amendment it would be hard to place much faith in a conviction.
Judge or Jury?
A trial is an opportunity for a defendant’s guilt to be judged by a neutral party. Prosecutors and law enforcement have a duty to seek guilt. This does not mean that they are doing unfair things, but their role in the process necessarily gives them a stake in the outcome and thus disqualifies them as finders of fact. While the Sixth Amendment creates a right to a trial before a jury, defendants have a related right to waive the jury process and have their case decided by a judge.
There are times when the specific facts of a case point towards a judge, whom may have many years of legal experience, as the most neutral party. For example, the two teens recently convicted for the now infamous Steubenville rape incident chose to have their case tried to a judge. I suspect that their decision was based on a fear that the wild media fervor surrounding the case would make selection of a fair and impartial jury nearly impossible. Those defendants were ultimately convicted, and in hindsight it is not clear whether their choice of waiving their right to a jury was a wise decision, but defendants usually have a choice.
Regardless of whether a case is tried to a jury or a judge, the trial will proceed in a similar fashion. Both sides, the defense and the prosecution, will have an opportunity to present evidence. The prosecution will go first and the defense last. Prior to the trial, the prosecution and defense will always attempt to limit the admissible evidence by way of pre-trial motions. During a trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt – the highest burden in the law. Theoretically, a defendant faced with a weak case, could sit silently throughout the entire process and merely trust in the finder of fact to see through the holes in the prosecution’s evidence. This, however, is very unwise in most situations.
In practice, defendants will usually want to present the best evidence in their favor, and to attack the evidence presented by the other side. Here again, the Sixth Amendment comes into play. The amendment gives defendants a right to do several important things. First, defendants have a general right to demand that witnesses against them testify in court. There are some limitations, such as children in sexual abuse cases, but generally the prosecution has to bring witnesses into court. This is critical because if helps to ensure that witnesses give a true account of events. It also gives a defendant the right to cross-examine those witnesses to probe for errors, biases, or coercion.
The Constitution also guarantees defendants the right to present witnesses in their defense. This means that defendants can bring in people who might tell a story more favorable to their explanation of the facts. Such witnesses, if available, are critical because they will help a defendant tell his/her story to the fact finder. Without this piece of the puzzle, the judge or jury would hear only about a persons supposed guilt, nothing more. This right also gives defendants the power to compel witnesses to appear on their behalf, such as with a subpoena.
Once all witnesses have had a chance to testify in court, both sides will give closing arguments which are essentially short summations of the evidence as seen by that side. Once this is done, the finder of fact will make a determination and the trial is over. While all of this seems fairly straight forward, and often it is there are many important considerations along the way which are best made with the help of a qualified attorney.
One very important decision every defendant must make is whether or not to personally testify. Defendants have a right to speak on their own behalf, but this is not always wise. The Fifth Amendment gives suspects and defendants a right to refuse to answer questions – the answer to which may further incriminate the defendant. In other words, you cannot be compelled to admit a crime. There are times when a defendant will absolutely want to get on the stand and tell their story, but often doing so exposes a defendant to unpleasant questions on cross-examination. For example, it may open the door for evidence of the defendant’s past convictions.
You need an attorney!
Because of the complexities of the many other nuances and choices present in every trial, you should absolutely discuss these options with your own attorney. Choosing unwisely can potentially destroy your case. If you have been charged with a crime please contact me right away so that we can work together to make sure you make best use of your critical Constitutional rights.