Right to a Speedy TrialMany people are aware of at least some of their constitutional rights during a criminal investigation. They know less, however, about the trial process. This is partly because a large portion of suspects are either released or take a plea-deal long before a trial ever gets under way. It is also because the trial process can be very different depending on the defendant, the crime, or the legal strategy employed. I will attempt to cover the basics in this article, but you should always talk to a competent attorney about specific strategies for your case.
6th Amendment GuaranteesThe Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every person accused of a crime has a right to a jury trial, along with a right to confront witnesses, obtain his/her own witnesses, and have competent representation. This may be one of the most important parts of the Constitution from a criminal perspective because it is the foundation of our system of justice. Without the protections afforded in the Sixth Amendment it would be hard to place much faith in a conviction.
Judge or Jury?A trial is an opportunity for a defendant’s guilt to be judged by a neutral party. Prosecutors and law enforcement have a duty to seek guilt. This does not mean that they are doing unfair things, but their role in the process necessarily gives them a stake in the outcome and thus disqualifies them as finders of fact. While the Sixth Amendment creates a right to a trial before a jury, defendants have a related right to waive the jury process and have their case decided by a judge.
There are times when the specific facts of a case point towards a judge, whom may have many years of legal experience, as the most neutral party. For example, the two teens recently convicted for the now infamous Steubenville rape incident chose to have their case tried to a judge. I suspect that their decision was based on a fear that the wild media fervor surrounding the case would make selection of a fair and impartial jury nearly impossible. Those defendants were ultimately convicted, and in hindsight it is not clear whether their choice of waiving their right to a jury was a wise decision, but defendants usually have a choice.