The Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution establish the fundamental rights of a criminal defendant before and during trial. The purpose of these rights is to ensure that all citizens are treated fairly and to protect defendants from overreaching by the government or abuse at the hands of an overzealous prosecutor. If you are facing trial on criminal charges, you are guaranteed these rights:
- Right to a “speedy” trial: The Constitution does not define “speedy,” but state law typically does by setting deadlines (e.g., 175 days) for bringing a person to trial following arrest. Too long of a delay between your arrest and your trial can negatively impact your ability to defend
yourself because, as time passes, evidence grows stale, witnesses’ memories fade and some witnesses may be lost to the defense entirely.
- Right to a “public” trial: A trial that is open to the public – including the media – is more likely to be fair and to respect your constitutional rights than one that is conducted in secret, behind closed doors. Transparency fosters justice.
- Right to an impartial jury: The Sixth Amendment guarantees your right to a trial by an impartial jury if you are charged with a crime that carries a penalty of more than 6 months in jail. Your trial will begin with the selection of the jury. A pool of prospective jurors will be summoned to the courthouse. Your defense lawyer and the prosecutor will question prospective jurors with the goal of weeding out those individuals with entrenched biases, so that the resulting jury for your
case is made up of individuals who will listen to the evidence with an open mind and render an impartial verdict.
- Right to know the charges against you: You have the right know the nature of the charges against you, with enough specificity so that you can defend yourself against the charges and against the possibility of a future prosecution on the same charges.
- Right to confront witnesses and subpoena witnesses in your favor: The “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment is your right to know the witnesses against you and to challenge their testimony on cross-examination. Conversely, you also have the power to subpoena (compel by force of law) witnesses to come to court and testify in your favor.
- Right to be represented by counsel: You have the right to have a competent criminal defense attorney represent you at trial and help you defend yourself against the charges. This right is so fundamental that if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
- Right to remain silent: The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This means that you cannot be forced to testify at your trial. You have the absolute right to remain silent. Moreover, your silence cannot be used against you as evidence of your guilt. You are presumed innocent unless and until the prosecution proves your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.