Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

From Academic Kids

The Sixth Amendment (Ratified December 15, 1791) to the United States Constitution guarantees rights related to criminal prosecutions in federal courts. The Supreme Court has ruled that these rights are so fundamental and important that they are protected in state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.



"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." This amendment was written with one mispelling. This was the word "defence" which should have an "s" in place of the "c".

Speedy trial

Defendants in criminal cases, under the Sixth Amendment, have the right to a speedy trial. In the 1971 case of Barker v. Wingo, the Supreme Court held that determinations of whether or not the right has been denied must be made on a case-by-case basis. One of the factors recognized by the Court was the length of delay, but the Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled that some particular time limit must apply. Another factor recognized by the Court was the reason for the delay. The prosecution may not excessively delay the trial for its own advantage, but a trial may be delayed to secure the presence of an absent witness. The other factors to be considered are the time and manner in which the defendant has asserted his right, and the degree of prejudice to the defendant which the delay has caused. If it is found that a defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated, then the indictment must be dismissed and/or the conviction overturned. A reversal or dismissal of a criminal case on speedy trial grounds means that no further prosecution for the alleged offense can take place.

Public trial

The requirement that trials be public is not absolute. Trials may be reasonably regulated to avoid publicity that could prejudice a jury. Trials may be closed at the behest of the government only if it shows "an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest." The accused may also request a closure of the trial; in such a case, it must be demonstrated that "first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant's fair trial rights."


The right to a trial by jury has always depended on the nature of the offense with which the defendant is charged. Petty offenses—those punishable by imprisonment for not more than six months—are not covered by the jury requirement. Even where multiple petty offenses are concerned, the total time of imprisonment possible exceeding six months, the right to a jury trial does not exist. Proceedings in state juvenile courts do not require juries either.

Originally, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial indicated a right to "a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law, and includes all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted." Therefore, it was held that juries had to be composed of twelve persons and that verdicts had to be unanimous, as was customary in England. When, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court extended the right to a trial by jury to defendants in state courts, it re-examined some of the standards. It has been held that the twelve came to be the number of jurors by "historical accident," and that a jury of six would be sufficient. The Supreme Court has also found that unanimity is not required in jury verdicts.

Juries must be, by the terms of the Sixth Amendment, impartial. Firstly, the phrase has been interpreted as requiring individual jurors to be unbiased. At voir dire, each side may question potential jurors to determine any bias, and challenge them if the same is found; the court determines the validity of these challenges for cause. The defendant may not challenge a conviction, however, on the grounds that a challenge for cause was denied incorrectly if the defendant had the opportunity to use peremptory challenges.

Another factor in determining the impartiality of the jury is the nature of the panel, or venire, from which the jurors are selected. Venires must represent a fair cross-section of the community; the defendant may establish that the requirement was violated by showing that the allegedly excluded group is a "distinctive" one in the community, that the representation of such a group in venires is unreasonable and unfair in regard to the number of persons belonging to such a group and that the underrepresentation is caused by a systematic exclusion in the selection process. Thus, in Taylor v. Louisiana (1975), the Supreme Court invalidated a state law that exempted women who had not made a declaration of willingness to serve from jury service, while not doing the same for men.

The Constitution originally required that defendants be tried by juries selected from the state in which the crime was committed. The Sixth Amendment extends the rule by requiring trials to occur in districts ascertained by statute. As the Supreme Court found in Beavers v. Henkel (1904), the place where the offense is charged to have occurred determines the trial's location. Where multiple districts are alleged to have been locations of the crime, any of them may be chosen for the trial. In cases of offenses not committed in any state (for example, offenses committed at sea), the place of trial may be determined by Congress.

Notice of accusation

A defendant has, under the Sixth Amendment, the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him. An indictment must allege all of the ingredients of the crime in order. The Supreme Court held in United States v. Carll (1881) that "in an indictment ... it is not sufficient to set forth the offense in the words of the statute, unless those words of themselves fully, directly, and expressly, without any uncertainty or ambiguity, set forth all the elements necessary to constitute the offense intended to be punished." Vague wording, even if taken directly taken from a statute, does not suffice.


The defense, under the Sixth Amendment, must have an opportunity to "confront" and cross-examine witnesses. The confrontation clause relates to the common law rule preventing the admission of hearsay, that is to say, testimony by one witness as to the statements and observations of another person. The rationale was that the defendant had no opportunity to challenge the credibility of and cross-examine the person actually making the statements. Certain exceptions to the hearsay rule have been permitted; for instance, admissions by the defendant are admissible, as are dying declarations. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has held that the hearsay rule is not exactly the same as the confrontation clause; hearsay may, in some circumstances, be admitted though it is not covered by one of the long-recognized exceptions; for example, prior testimony may sometimes be admitted if the witness is unavailable.

The defendant must also be permitted to call witnesses in his favor. If such witnesses refuse to attend, they may be compelled to do so by the court at the request of the defendant. In some cases, however, the court may refuse to permit a defense witness to testify. If, for example, a defense lawyer fails to notify the prosecution of the identity of its witnesses in order to gain a tactical advantage, the witnesses whose identities were undisclosed may be precluded from testifying.


The Sixth Amendment, finally, guarantees the right of defendants to procure the assistance of counsel. The defendant has the right to not only be heard through such attorneys as he pleases. Furthermore, the defendant may represent himself. The court may, however, deny the defendant such a right when it is deemed that the defendant is incompetent to waive the right to counsel.

Originally, the clause was not interpreted as requiring the state to appoint counsel where the defendant could not afford to do so. The Supreme Court began to expand the interpretation of the clause in Powell v. Alabama (1932), in which it held, "in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him." In Johnson v. Zerbst (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that in all federal cases, counsel would have to be appointed for defendants who were too poor to hire their own. In 1942, when deciding Betts v. Brady, the Court declined to extend this requirement to the state courts under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1960, the Court extended the rule that applied in federal courts to state courts. It held in Hamilton v. Alabama (1961) that counsel had to be provided at no expense to defendants in capital cases when they so requested, even if there was no "ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like." Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) explicitly overruled Betts v. Brady, finding that counsel must be provided to indigent defendants in all cases, whether capital or otherwise.


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