It's the stuff of cop shows: when someone is arrested the police say, "if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you." Everyone knows these lines from the Miranda rights, but did you know it started with the Sixth Amendment?
Article III, section 2 of the Constitution says that all trials in America shall be by jury. But what if the government could postpone your trial indefinitely, or hide the accusations against you? What if the government could use secret witnesses? The abuses are easy to predict.
Sixth Amendment procedures limit the government's power and give defendants a level playing field against the huge resources of the state.
For brevity's sake, this video examines only the right to a lawyer and the 1961 case Gideon vs Wainright. This landmark case is the story of an ordinary man, who said he didn't commit the crime he was then convicted of. Everyone claims innocence, but what if you don't know how to defend yourself? That was Gideon's problem, and he was illiterate. Only because of a lucky break did he even know that he had the right to counsel.
If a jury hears only one side of a case, the accuser's, a guilty verdict is all but guaranteed. The legal system must be adversarial; both sides must have a fair shot.
So in America, all defendants get lawyers, even at taxpayer expense. Most states have a public defender's office funded through the state's budget.
But public defenders have hundreds of clients and can't really mount an energetic defense. Read a Senator Chuck Grassley's statement about the problem here. Read about a more recent action by the Justice Department here.
Imagine representing a man whose alibi is a dog walker in a park three counties away at the time of the crime. It might be true, but if a PD has to be in court all over the state, they can't travel to hunt for a dog walker in a distant park. They just don't have time, so they urge their client to plead it out to a lesser charge. Guilty pleas and criminal convictions are a significant social factor in the lives of families. Pleading out to crimes means that someone can't pass background checks for employment. Everyone suffers.
A double whammy of injustice
The founders told us to "establish justice," but the complexities of that search are interminable. The Sixth Amendment guarantees many rights to criminal defendants. Some Americans ask, why does the criminal get so many rights?
If an innocent person is sent to prison, this a painful injustice which must be corrected. But add to that, the real criminal is still free, unpunished and still making trouble. It's a double whammy of injustice.
This amendment is a fountain of litigation, because of the importance of America's legal system to justice.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay also poses Sixth Amendment questions, such as the speed of the trials and the military nature of the juries. Admittedly, the defendants are foreigners and not American citizens, but note the Sixth Amendment says only "the accused." Does that mean accused foreign terrorists too? It's not clear what the founders intended.
One thing is certain: American courts must remain the example to the whole world.
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