What is the 6th Amendment? - Definition, Summary & Court Cases

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  • 0:00 Definition of the 6th…
  • 1:21 Speedy and Public Trial
  • 2:36 An Impartial Jury
  • 3:37 Indictments, Right to…
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

In this lesson, we'll look at what the 6th Amendment states, how it has been interpreted, and famous court cases that have dealt with the 6th Amendment. We'll also examine the famous case that gave us Miranda rights.

Definition of the 6th Amendment

Imagine getting arrested for a crime you didn't commit. You are held indefinitely in prison without a trial because the prosecutor keeps delaying things in court. The trial is also being conducted secretly and behind closed doors. You don't know why you are being accused, and the witnesses testifying against you are all anonymous. You can't call your own witnesses, and you can't have a lawyer help you during all this. Does that sound fair?

Well, thanks to the 6th Amendment of the Constitution, you don't have to worry about these problems. The 6th Amendment, a part of the original Bill of Rights, grants individuals certain rights in the event of an arrest.

The 6th Amendment states:

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.

In this lesson, we'll break down the various clauses and note how the Supreme Court has interpreted the clauses in different court cases.

Speedy and Public Trial

Because of the 6th Amendment, you have a right to a speedy and public trial. In Barker v. Wingo (1972), the Court ruled that a conviction can be overturned if the delay between arrest and trial is incredibly long. Although the time a prosecution can take to try an accused person varies by state, the general rule of thumb is that more than a year tends to be prejudicial against an accused. Also, if a court finds that a delay is due to the prosecution and not the defense, or that a delay negatively hurts the defendant's chances in any way, the defendant can have his or her conviction overturned. Very few convictions get overturned on this clause, however, because most of the time, the defendants ask for more time and not the prosecution.

Now let's talk about the public aspect to trials. The Court ruled in Sheppard v. Maxwell (1966) that a defendant's trial can become closed to the public if a defendant proves that a public trial would hurt his or her chances, or if a prosecutor can show that making the trial public would damage 'higher values' of a society. In all other cases, however, most trials have to be open to the public.

An Impartial Jury

According to the 6th Amendment, you have a right to be tried by an impartial jury. This only applies, however, to serious offenses that may result in jail time longer than six months. Minor offenses are usually tried before a judge.

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