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Constitutional Requirements of a Criminal Trial

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  • 0:06 Constitutional Rights…
  • 1:14 Arrest, Arraignment &…
  • 2:38 Bail & Preliminary Hearing
  • 3:16 Trial, Jury & Speedy…
  • 4:36 Public Trial, Verdict & Appeal
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

In criminal court, a defendant will rely heavily on his constitutional rights to a fair trial. These rights, specifically the Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights provide the requirements for a criminal trial. Some rights include right to a speedy trial, right to counsel and a right to an impartial jury. There are several other equally important rights that this important amendment protects.

Constitutional Rights for Trial

The Constitution provides the highest level of law for the United States. The first 10 amendments of the Constitution make up the Bill of Rights, and within this are several rights that an accused person may exercise during a criminal trial:

  • Fifth Amendment right to remain silent: a defendant cannot be forced to testify against himself.
  • Fifth Amendment right against double-jeopardy: a defendant cannot be charged for the same crime twice.
  • Sixth Amendment right to a public trial made up of anyone wishing to attend.
  • Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
  • Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial: there are no set time limits and is decided case-by-case.
  • Sixth Amendment right to an attorney: this may be a hired or court-appointed attorney.
  • Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation: attorney must be reasonably qualified to represent.
  • Eighth Amendment right against excessive bail.
  • Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

Arrest, Arraignment and Representation

In order to understand how a defendant exercises these rights, let's quickly run down the steps in a criminal trial. Please keep in mind, not all state courts work in the same way. This is a general overview.

When a person is suspected of criminal behavior, the police will perform an arrest. During the arrest and while in holding, the arrested person may exercise his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. He cannot be forced to testify against himself or incriminate himself in any way.

Once a person is arrested, he is arraigned. This is when the judge informs the defendant of the charges against him. At this point, the defendant may exercise his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. If he cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint him a public defender. The defendant also has a right to adequate representation under the same amendment. This means that the attorney he hires or that is appointed to him must be reasonably able to perform his duties.

It simply means a competent attorney will represent the defendant. This does not mean that the defendant has a right to win the case against him or have all charges dropped. As long as the attorney does his job by representing the defendant, calling all witnesses, performing the necessary pleadings and motions and responds to the defendant's questions in a timely way, the defendant is being reasonably represented.

Bail and Preliminary Hearing

Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the judge will set bail. In less serious crimes, police may set bail at the time of the arrest. For our purposes, the defendant committed a serious crime. The defendant may exercise his Eighth Amendment right against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment while being held.

Next, a preliminary hearing will take place. At this juncture, the prosecutor presents evidence to convince a judge that the defendant committed the crimes he is accused of. If the judge agrees, the case moves to court. If not, the charges may be dropped.

Trial, Jury and Speedy Trial Right

Assuming the judge found the prosecution's evidence convincing enough to move forward, the defendant will go to trial. This means the defendant will stand before a jury and a judge to answer the charges against him.

While awaiting trial, the defendant and his attorney may file pre-trial motions requesting the court to take action. Pre-trial motions may include motion to dismiss or motion to enter a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a request on the behalf of the defendant to plead to a lesser charge, generally in exchange for something like testimony or information.

If no motions are granted, the case will stand trial before a jury. This is a crucial stage in the case because the decision comes down to a unanimous vote decided by 12 people, a defendant's Sixth Amendment right.

The defendant may exercise his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. While there are no specific timeframes that make for a speedy trial and each case is decided on its own merit, a speedy trial basically means a defendant cannot sit in holding for an indefinite period of time. It is in the best interest of all parties that a speedy trial takes place. For the defendant, it means a quicker verdict. For the prosecution, it may mean greater availability of witnesses.

Public Trial, Verdict and Appeal

At the trial, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney will present evidence and testimony. The jury containing 12 members of society chosen to reach a verdict will listen to and evaluate evidence and testimony to determine an outcome.

When the trial takes place, the courtroom is generally open to any citizen wishing to visit. Friends, family and members of the press cannot be barred from a courtroom trial. This is expressed in the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Now, once a jury receives its instructions from the judge, the members will deliberate in a private setting. A verdict is reached, sent to the judge, and once approved, is told to the defendant.

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