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 favour. and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
The Sixth Amendment is one of the hallmarks of American liberty. It focuses on the rights of a person accused of having committed a crime. It is comprehensive in scope, applying to ALL criminal prosecutions. Its protections reflect the respect that our founding fathers had for all people as being equal before God and demonstrates the seriousness with which our founding fathers approached the possibility of taking another man's life, liberty or property. It does not reflect (as many would seem to suggest) an unwillingness to punish criminal misbehavior, but rather a certain trepidation about doing so without being reasonably certain that the accused is actually guilty of the offense for which he is charged. The protections embodied in the Sixth Amendment have one central purpose, assuring that an accused receive a fair trial designed to elicit the truth.
A criminal prosecution is a proceeding instituted and carried on by due course of law, before a competent tribunal, for the purpose of determining the guilt or innocence of a person charged with a crime. As anyone ever charged with a crime can attest, it is the most fearful place on the battlefield between the individual and the awesome power of the state. Without clearly defined protections, it is easy for the state to overwhelm most individuals in a criminal prosecution whether he or she is guilty or not. Therefore the Sixth Amendment was made to apply to ALL criminal prosecutions.
The Sixth Amendment sets forth seven distinct and separate rights that the individual shall have the use or benefit of when a criminal prosecution is instituted against an individual. First, the accused shall have the right (something that cannot be taken away without consent) to a speedy trial. This means that the accused, who can be held (i.e. imprisoned or otherwise restricted against his or her will) following indictment by Grand Jury, has the right to a formal examination of the facts of his or her case, by a court of law, to decide the validity of a charge or claim, without delay.
Second, the accused enjoys the right to a public trial. Having a public trial protects the accused by seeing to it that the people, who are the ultimate arbiters of the Constitution, are able to watch over all elements of the criminal justice system to insure its integrity and adherence to the letter of the Constitution. Moreover, it has several collateral benefits - i.e. deterrence of other potential wrongdoers and exposure of those that do wrong.
Third, the accused has the right to a trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime was committed. To be tried by an impartial jury is to have the facts in issue put to the test by a group of fellow citizens, who have no reason to favor one side or party more than another, chosen from the community wherein the crime occurred, who swear an oath before God to hear evidence and give a decision in accordance with their findings. Interestingly, it does not say trial by judge because the judge was never intended to try the accused, that was the province of the jury. In fact, one of the reasons that the jury was chosen from the district where the crime occurred was because the jury is the conscience of the "community" and therefore has the authority to overrule a judge's rendition of the law if the jury believe that the law, as set forth by the judge, is morally wrong, in general or as applied to a particular set of facts. Furthermore, the Sixth Amendment provides that the district from which the jury is drawn shall have been previously ascertained by law. This is obviously designed to provide an additional protection against gerrymandering with the jury ex post facto (i.e. after the fact).
Fourth, the accused has the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him. This is a provision, much taken for granted in this country, that we read about being violated routinely in other countries. A good recent example was the case of U.S. citizen Harry Wu, who was detained without charge in China for several weeks before his release. What this provision means is that an accused must be told of the essential character or type of accusation and the reason (or basis) for the accusation against him. It is central to an accused being able to properly defend himself at trial and makes perfect sense under the common law, where crimes were classified according to the type of act committed and no criminal prosecution could begin without a Grand Jury presentment or indictment.
Fifth, the accused has the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him. This clause brings to a head the very essence of a trial and that is the ability of the accused, before a jury of his peers, to come face to face with those who claim to have observed, first hand, a material fact that might cause the accused to be found guilty. It is in that face-to-face confrontation that the truth is put to the test for the trier of fact to observe. To permit otherwise is tantamount to allowing a witness' testimony to go unchallenged, an error that can easily lead to incorrect results.
Sixth, the accused has the right to have Compulsory process for obtaining Witnesses in his favour. This provision demonstrates the premium that our forefathers placed on individual liberty because it permits an accused to compel (i.e. against another's free will) the attendance in court of a potentially favorable witness simply because, when weighed in the balance, our forefathers thought that the risk to an accused's life, liberty, and property, inherent in a criminal prosecution, outweighed the temporary loss of freedom to the witness, even though the witness did nothing wrong.
Seventh, the accused has the right to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence. Most people consider this phrase to refer solely to lawyers, but its meaning is much broader for it protects the right, of an accused, to employ the advisor or counsellor of his choice to aid him in his defense. This is very important because it empowers the accused, who might otherwise be compromised, to fully defend himself against attack. Thus, once again, we find that the Constitution and Bill of Rights, fully support the sanctity of each and every human life and the rights bestowed upon each and every man by God.