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The Sixth Amendment

This amendment protects the right to a fair and speedy public trial by jury, including the rights to be notified of the accusations, to confront the accuser, to obtain witnesses and to retain counsel

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 defense. 

The “liberty and justice for all” part is a powerful final assertion in our pledge of allegiance, and it is this principle of universal, unbiased justice that the Sixth Amendment was established to protect. Of course, there have been alterations to this original amendment (such as specifying certain conditions under which a trial open to the public would prevent the proper unfolding of justice, and that no jury is required for minor offenses); but the basic idea remains the same. To prevent abuses of the power to arrest by the state, these rights to a speedy trial, an unbiased jury, witnesses for and against the defendant, and to an attorney are guaranteed by this amendment.

It’s no secret that in American history, some citizens have been considered “less than” other citizens. Black citizens were denied certain legal rights, such as the right to be witnesses in a court of law, provide evidence, and engage in a lawsuit, until the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed their rights of citizenship (much to the Southern states dismay). It is just as important to be treated unbiasedly and with proper respect when accused of breaking the law as it is to be equally protected under the law.

In light of the recent abuse of power by our police force, it’s even clearer why this amendment (and the entire Bill of Rights, for that matter) is crucial.

There was no time to even consider Michael Brown’s Sixth Amendment rights; he was gunned down, no explanation, no formal arrest procedure. Eric Garner was choked to death, with an illegal chokehold administered by an officer, and none of his rights even considered before he suffocated. It’s almost as if we’re revisiting the injustice represented by Tom Robinson’s conviction in To Kill a Mockingbird, except nowadays we don’t even make it to the courtroom before the prejudice and brutality rear their ugly heads.

Injustice has creeped into law enforcement, the supposed stewards of equality and justice in our country. The Sixth Amendment was established because at some point, our country agreed that fair and unbiased treatment of the accused was a crucial part of maintaining the individual citizen’s integrity. It seems we’ve been ignoring how such rights have been implemented, and it’s clear that we’ve allowed racial prejudice to infiltrate our criminal justice system.
The Bill of Rights was formulated to prevent abuses against citizens at the hands of the state. “Liberty and justice for all” is clearly established in our constitution, and we say we believe in it at the normative level. But considering how our implementation of such principles has gone, the rights given to all Americans in the  Bill of Rights need to be better realized at the practical level.

 

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Caroline Peterson

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