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The Rights of a Defendant

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The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, provides significant protection for defendants accused of a crime in the American criminal justice system. While nearly everyone has heard of the Miranda Rights, which police are required to read before an arrest, some people might be unaware that those rights stem from constitutional protections. The Constitution also guarantees several other fundamental rights designed to protect those accused of crimes.

Constitutional Protections

The Constitution guarantees that a defendant has the right to avoid self-incrimination. This right is protected by the 5th Amendment, which states that no one can be compelled “to be a witness against himself.” If a defendant is asked a question, by the police he can remain silent or on the witness stand he can answer by saying “I plead the Fifth Amendment” or “I invoke the Fifth Amendment” if the answer to the question would incriminate him.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to a speedy public trial and to be judged by a jury of their peers. This means that a person cannot be tried in secret, cannot be imprisoned for a long time before trial, and must have the opportunity to be tried by a jury instead of a judge. This amendment is designed to protect people from secret or unfair government prosecution.

The right to a jury trial applies only to crimes carrying a sentence of more than six months of jail time. In most cases, juries are made up of twelve people, although only six are required. In all states but Oregon and Louisiana, juries must unanimously determine that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the defendant to be found guilty (Oregon and Louisiana juries may find a defendant guilty if the jury votes 10-2 that the defendant was guilty).

Courts are very deferential to the decision a jury makes. A judge or higher court will not change a jury’s decision regarding the facts of a case as long as the jury acted reasonably and the evidence could possibly support the decision the jury made.

The Sixth Amendment also gives defendants a related right: the right to confront witnesses. This means that, at a trial, defendants have the opportunity to cross-examine people who are testifying against them. It also means a defendant can subpoena reluctant witnesses or request that people come to court even if they do not want to.

Finally, the Sixth Amendment guarantees that a defendant is entitled to representation by an attorney. If a person cannot afford an attorney, the court must provide one in some cases, such as a defendant charged with a felony or a misdemeanor that could result in jail time or a juvenile facing delinquency charges. Any attorney, whether hired privately or a public defender, must also be adequate or reasonably capable. If an attorney doesn’t do their job properly, either by not calling witnesses, not objecting at the right times, not abiding by the defendant's wishes, or otherwise failing to provide a basic minimum level of qualified representation, a case can be overturned.

Once a trial is over, the Fifth Amendment prohibits the prosecution from retrying a person for the same crime. This is called the “double jeopardy” clause and is designed to ensure that no one is harassed by prosecutors.

Miranda Rights

In 1966, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Miranda case that police inform a suspect of these constitutional rights when a person is arrested. This mandated was required in order to ensure that all criminals were aware of the constitutional protections afforded to them.

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