The sixth amendment


The federal constitution through the Sixth Amendment guarantees a suspect in a criminal case the right to a speedy trial held in a public court room before an impartial jury in the State and district where he is alleged to have committed the crime. The State or district should be established by law. The suspect has also the right to be made informed of the cause and the type of accusations leveled against him. The court entrusted with the duty to summon witnesses to testify in or against his favor and to assign him an attorney who will act on his defense. The 14th amendment as provided by the federal constitution makes it mandatory for states to provide indigent defendants with an attorney in any criminal proceedings (Gardner, 2000).

During the seventeenth century, there was a general feeling among members of the public in England that forcing a suspect to give self-incriminating information was in violation of an individual’s civil rights. They were also opposed to the Star Chamber; a British court which had been established in 1487 with the right to torture suspects in order to obtain confessions. In addition, the Star Chamber was mandated to administer an oath requiring suspects to respond to all questions during interrogation which resulted in forced self incriminating confessions (Head, 2005). The Star Chamber was abolished by Parliament in 1641, and the right against self incrimination incorporated into the English common law. The American colonies also adopted this right and included it in the Bill of Rights as the Fifth Amendment which provides that an individual should not be forced to be a witness against himself in the proceedings of a criminal case.

Despite this constitutional guarantee, police continued to violate this right and up to 1930, the use of excessive force, threats and intimidation was extensively used by the police to obtain information from suspects. This, however, had reduced significantly at the time of the Miranda case and replaced with psychological methods of obtaining evidence as advocated for in police training manuals. These methods included long interrogation periods which would make the suspects exhausted leading to confession or deceiving suspects that they already had incriminating evidence against them and their lack of cooperation was therefore inconsequential (Gardner, 2000). Furthermore, they were not compelled to inform suspects of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney before interrogation. Information obtained from such a confession was admissible in a court of law as credible evidence and could be used to convict a suspect in a criminal case. This resulted in the suspect being his own accuser which is a gross violation of his right as guaranteed by the sixth amendment of the federal constitution.

The period between the early thirties to the late sixties was marked by several landmark cases which led to the expansion of the rights guaranteed by the sixth amendment. The first of such cases was the Powell v. Alabama (1932) case where the defendants were denied the services of an attorney during a criminal trial. The Supreme Court overruled a previous ruling made by the State Court of Alabama as they were convicted without the assistance of counsel. Their right to an attorney as provided by the sixth amendment was therefore violated by the State Court prompting the Supreme Court to nullify its ruling. The Supreme Court ordered a fresh trial with the assistance of an attorney to act on their defense. Ten years later, the Betts v. Brady case set another precedent relating to the sixth amendment. In this case, the defendant was denied the right to the assistance of council on the grounds that the state court could not provide an attorney to an indigent defendant charged with a non capital offence. The ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the right of a defendant to an attorney was largely determined by the prevailing circumstances of the individual cases. The state courts were henceforth not compelled to provide an attorney to an indigent defendant except in criminal proceedings.     Twenty years later, this ruling was nullified by the Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) case. The defendant in this case had been tried before the State Court without the assistance of legal counsel. Consequently, he acted as his own counsel before the State Court where he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. This prompted him to make an appeal to the Supreme Court arguing that his right to an attorney had been violated denying him a free and fair trial. The court ruled in his favor and ordered that an attorney be assigned to act on his behalf.

A year later, the rights guaranteed by the sixth amendment were further expanded by the Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) case. Escobedo was held in police custody and questioned in the absence of an attorney despite requesting for one.  He was forced into a confession which was used as evidence against him in court leading to his conviction but later made an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in his favor on the grounds that he was held in police custody as a suspect in a criminal case and therefore his attorney should have been present during the interrogation. This set a precedent for the Miranda v. Arizona case where the rights of a suspect held in custody as provided by the sixth amendment were fully embodied in state courts and among the law enforcement agencies. The law enforcement agencies began informing suspects during arrest of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney during interrogation, a practice upheld to date.

Miranda Vs Arizona is a land mark case which marked the onset of the direct enforcement of the sixth amendment which upholds the right of a suspect to an attorney before revealing any information pertaining to the case in hand. Ernesto Miranda, a resident of Arizona, had a long track record of criminal activities. He had been to jail several times on various charges. His mother had passed away when he was only a small boy and leaving him to the care of his father and step mother. He was taken to an approved school because of his troublesome nature and ended up in juvenile on several occasions.

Miranda was taken into police custody in 1963 on allegations of stealing from a bank employee. He was questioned for several hours during which time he confessed to kidnapping and raping an 18 year old woman. He was however not made knowledgeable of his right to an attorney during interrogation as provided by the sixth amendment.  Miranda went further and recorded a statement based on his confession which was used against him during trial. The confession sheets had a disclaimer stating that the suspect made the confession out of his own free will besides being fully aware of his legal rights when writing the statement. In actual sense, he had not been informed of his right to an attorney before providing information to the law enforcement agencies as well as the right to remain silent as provided by the Sixth and Fifth amendments respectively.

Based on his confession to the police, Miranda was taken to trial at the Maricopa County Superior Court in June 1963 with an attorney assigned to represent him in the trial. His attorney, seventy three year old Alvin Moore, objected to Miranda’s confession being entered by Cooley, one of the two police detectives who had interrogated him, as the main evidence for the trial. Moore’s objection to the introduction of the confession was based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright which stated that a suspect has the right to an attorney during questioning. Maricopa Superior Court Judge, Yale McFate, convicted Miranda to twenty years in prison stating he only had the right to an attorney during trial and not during custodial interrogation. Miranda’s confession was then successfully used to incriminate him as the jury found him guilty on the basis of his confession.

Miranda appealed against the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1965. Amicus briefs for and against the issue were filed by several civil rights and law enforcement organizations. These included; The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of State Attorneys General. Moore was unable to proceed with the case prompting ACLU to enlist the services of John J. Flynn, a distinguished U.S. attorney together with his partner, John P. Frank to act as counsel for Miranda. They filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that Miranda’s trial was biased and in violation of his right to an attorney as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.  The attorneys’ plea for appeal was granted and the Supreme Court agreed to give a second hearing to Miranda’s case. The decision of the Supreme Court was influenced by the precedents set by two previous rulings namely, Mapp v. Ohio (1961) and Escobedo v. Illinois (1964). In the latter case, the court had passed a ruling to the effect that refusing a suspect in custody the right to an attorney and failing to warn of his right to remain silent was a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment. This would amount to self incriminating evidence and thus could not form the basis of a free and fair trial unless it could be proven that the suspect was fully aware of these rights and willingly agreed to waive them.

The case was first heard in February 1966 where the two attorneys argued that their client’s right to an attorney as provided by the federal constitution through the Sixth Amendment was not upheld by the Phoenix Police Department. They also included the Fifth Amendment which guarantees a suspect in custody the right to remain silent before getting in touch with an attorney. This made their argument against the State Court ruling even more solid. They argued that Miranda had little education and thus could not have been aware of his fifth and sixth amendments rights when making his confession to the police. In addition, the police did not inform him of his right to remain silent and the right to an attorney and therefore the written confession could not be used as evidence. This was in spite of the fact that the confession sheet stating that he was fully aware of his rights when writing the confession.

Gary Nelson, assistant attorney general for Arizona, argued against the Miranda case dismissing it as a misguided attempt to further expand the rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment based on the Escobedo v. Illinois case while it was clear to all that the suspect was guilty as charged. There was no constitutional correlation between the two cases according to him. He further stated that making it mandatory for the police to make suspects aware of their rights before taking them into custody would not be in the best interests of public safety. Confessions made in the absence of an attorney could be used as evidence as long as the police did not deny the suspect the right to an attorney. Therefore it was not necessary to make the suspect aware of his right to an attorney before drawing a confession from him as it was up to the suspect to decide whether he wanted to make a confession in the presence of an attorney (Supreme Court collection, 1966). He wanted the Supreme Court to come out clear on the matter while taking care not to make it impossible for the police to successfully prosecute suspects.

In June 1966 Chief Justice Earl Warren gave his verdict on the matter stating that a suspect in custody must be informed of his right to remain silent as well as the right to an attorney before making any statements that may incriminate him. In order for any confession made by a suspect to be use as evidence, it must be proven that he or she willingly gave up these rights. (Supreme Court collection, 1966)  The police henceforth began advising suspects on their rights before arresting them in what is famously known as the Miranda warnings. Miranda was retried and his previous sentence of twenty years reduced to eleven years and was paroled in 1972.

Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) is another case which was successfully argued on the basis of the sixth amendment. Danny Escobedo was a 22 year old Mexican who was arrested after his brother- in- law, Manuel, was fatally shot and killed. The police tried to interrogate him but he declined to cooperate without first speaking to his attorney. The police were forced to release him but rearrested him ten days later after they had interrogated Benedict DiGerlando who alleged that it was Escobedo who fired the shots that killed Manuel. Escobedo was still adamant and wanted his attorney to be present during the interrogation which the police declined in spite of the fact that his attorney was in the building at the time of the questioning.

In addition to denying Escobedo the access to the services of an attorney during interrogation, the police also violated his rights as provided by the Fifth Amendment by not informing him the right to remain silent. The police employed the psychological tactic of long interrogation as well as using the information provided by DiGerlando to force Escobedo into a confession. This bore fruit when Escobedo finally yielded to the pressure and confessed to an Assistant State Attorney of his involvement in the crime leading to his conviction.

Escobedo appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court which reversed the conviction initially but later affirmed the ruling after the state of Illinois appealed. Escobedo appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court with ACLU acting as a friend of the court on behalf of Escobedo. The Supreme Court made a ruling to the effect that under the given circumstances, Escobedo was not held for general interrogation for an unsolved crime but as an actual suspect and therefore denying him the right to an attorney during interrogation was in direct violation of his rights as provided by the sixth amendment. In addition he was not advised on his right to remain silent before interrogation and therefore the confession made could not be used against him in a court of law as it would amount to self incriminating evidence (Supreme Court collection, 1964). The earlier conviction was thus dismissed.

Powell v. Alabama (1932) is another case on the violation of the sixth amendment. The Powell case is of particular interest as it pities a group of nine young black men against the state of Alabama during the reign of Jim Crow in the south when segregation was rife. The general feeling of the white people of Alabama was that the blacks and whites should remain separate. The ruling upheld in this case would therefore reflect on the determination of the courts to uphold the rule of law as provided by the constitution however unpopular this would be with the white people of Alabama.

The case revolves around nine young African-American men who boarded a train headed for Alabama and got into a fight with another group of white men who later boarded the train. The white men were thrown out of the train and they sent a message on what had transpired to the town of Scottsboro. The local sheriff and a group of angry locals intercepted the train in which time two young women in the train alleged that they had been raped by the young men. They were then arrested and taken to court for trial.

The nine young men were denied the services of an attorney prior to the trial and on the day of the trial, an out-of-town attorney appeared to argue on their behalf but he could not formally represent them. The presiding judge requested all the lawyers present to volunteer to represent the nine young men, but only one agreed. However the lawyers could not come up with any solid defense as they had not met with the defendants before the trial in order to familiarize themselves with the circumstances surrounding the case. Eight of these young men were consequently found guilty by four different juries and received the death penalty. This was in spite of different doctors testifying that they could not find any incriminating evidence against the young men after examining the women. They unsuccessfully appealed against this ruling through the State Courts of Alabama and finally made an appeal through the Supreme Court as a last resort.

The Supreme Court upheld their right to an attorney as provided for by the Sixth Amendment stating that it was applicable to the state through the 14th Amendment which empowers the state to provide an attorney to defendants who cannot afford an attorney. The State of Alabama had denied the accused this constitutional right by denying the accused the services of an attorney prior to the trial and even during the trial as they were informally represented. Under the prevailing circumstances, the trial could not therefore be termed as free and fair and it was a gross violation of the Sixth Amendment. The court overruled the convictions and ordered a fresh trial to be instigated.

Justice Sutherland wrote a ruling stating that a defendant charged with such a serious offence could not be denied of his fundamental right to consult with an attorney. The state courts had hastily prosecuted the defendants to the pleasure of the mob instead of proceeding in the calm spirit of regulated justice. The ruling further stated that the right to counsel was one of the fundamental principles of liberty and justice on which the United States of America is founded on (Supreme Court Collection, 1932). The principles of justice cannot be twisted to fit a particular a situation as this would set a bad precedence which is the basis of common law. With this ruling, the Court set a precedent based on the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, through which the right to an attorney before and during trial must be guaranteed to anyone facing a possible death sentence, whether in a State or federal court. The Powell case is another landmark case with respect to the sixth amendment as it marked the beginning of the inclusion into State constitutions the fair trial rights guaranteed by the 6th Amendment. These rights were made applicable to the States by the 14th Amendment (Supreme Court Collection, 1932).

Betts v. Brady (1942) is a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court denied indigent defendants the right to an attorney when prosecuted by a state. Betts was arraigned before the Circuit Court of Carroll County, Maryland charged with robbery. He notified the court he could not afford the services of an attorney which he had requested the State to provide him with. The judge however notified him that according to the practices of Carroll County this was not possible as an attorney could only be appointed for indigent defendants charged with murder or rape.

Betts chose to represent himself and elected to be tried in the absence of a jury. The court summoned witnesses at his request whom he cross examined. At the end of the trial, the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to eight years in prison. His quest for justice did not end there, while still serving his sentence; he filed a petition with the Circuit Court for Washington County, Maryland. He presented a writ of habeas corpus to the State Court of Maryland alleging that he had been denied the right to the services of an attorney as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution based on the precedent set by Powell v. Alabama. However his petition was nullified by the court and he was once again remanded in custody.

A few months later he presented a writ for habeas corpus to the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland. The judge granted him the writ but still remanded Betts as he had not fully employed the services of courts below its jurisdiction. Betts finally filed for certiorari to the Supreme Court. The court granted him a hearing for his appeal but rejected his plea to be accorded the services of an attorney as provided for by the 6th and 14th amendment. In a six to three decision, the Court declined Betts’ request for the appointment of counsel. Justice Owen Roberts stated that the sixth amendment guaranteed a defendant in a criminal proceeding the right to the assistance of counsel without which a trial cannot be deemed to be free and fair. This, however, must not be misinterpreted to mean that a trial cannot be free and fair if it proceeds without the services of a counsel representing the defendant. The need for counsel therefore depends on the circumstances of the individual cases (Supreme Court Collection, 1942). However, Justice Hugo Black, one of the judges sitting in the trial vehemently opposed this ruling stating that if adopted, the courts would be trashing the very liberties it was designed to protect.

The case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is similar to that of Betts v. Brady.  Just like Betts, Gideon was charged with a non capital offence after a burglary the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida was broken into. He was also an indigent defendant and therefore requested for the court to provide him with the services of an attorney. The Florida State court denied him an attorney on the grounds that it was only mandated to provide an attorney to act on behalf of indigent defendants charged with capital offences. Faced with circumstances similar to Betts, he defended himself with the court summoning witnesses whom he cross examined. He used the knowledge acquired from his studies in the prison library to defend himself exceptionally well for a layman. He began his defense with an opening statement addressed to the jury, pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and did not present himself as a witness. He was however convicted for the crime and sent to prison.

As in the case of Betts, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. He argued that his denial of counsel by the State Court during trial amounted to a violation of his rights as guaranteed by the sixth amendment through the Federal Constitution. The court made a ruling delivered by Justice Hugo Black, who had sat in the Betts v. Brad case and had been opposed to the ruling. The court ruled in favor of Gideon stating that the sixth amendment to the federal constitution provides that in all criminal proceedings, the defendant has the right to assistance of counsel for his defense and this also applies to the states as provided by the 14th amendment and therefore an indigent defendant facing trial in a state court has every right to have counsel appointed to him by the State Court (Supreme Court Collection, 1963).

The Fifth Amendment as provided by the federal constitution guarantees an individual the right to remain silent and any self incriminating evidence is not admissible in any court unless it is proven that the defendant willingfully and knowingly waived this right. The Sixth Amendment on the other hand provides the defendant the right to counsel during interrogation and is enforced in the state courts through the14th amendment which guarantees an indigent defendant the right to counsel in a criminal proceeding. Most people believe that any violation of their right as pertaining to these constitutional amendments before trial is enough ground for the dismissal of the charges. In actual sense however, the arresting officer is only obliged to read to the accused of his constitutional rights guaranteed by the sixth amendment prior to initiating interrogation after taking him into custody (Gardner, 2000).

This was the case in Escobedo v. Illinois where the Supreme Court ruled that the defendant was wrongfully denied access to counsel as according to the circumstances he was under custodial interrogation as opposed to a general interrogation. In other words he was being interrogated as a suspect to a crime. Therefore for the rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to be upheld by any court established by the law, two conditions must pre exist; first, the suspect must have been held in custody by law enforcement agencies. Secondly, the law enforcement agency must have initiated interrogation.

It is upon the court to establish the circumstances under which a defendant can lay claim to have been held in custody as well whether it was the suspect or the law enforcement agent who initiate the interrogation. A court of law may use confessions made by a suspect under custody only if he voluntarily initiated the interrogation. The suspect may later object to the confession being used as evidence to on the grounds that he was not informed of his right to remain silent and the right of an attorney during such interrogation despite initiating the interrogation. In addition, he might bring to his defense the fact that the he was intimidated by the mere presence of a law enforcement agent and therefore initiated the interrogation out of fear. The court has the duty to make an objective decision in such circumstances free of the subjective arguments advanced by the defendant as well as the law enforcement agent (Gardner, 2000).

There are other instances where the suspect willingly and knowingly makes a confession which incriminates him. In such circumstances, the court must ascertain that the suspect was not intimidated or the law enforcement agent did not use suggestive language which led to the suspect making a confession. Nevertheless, the sixth amendment represents a masterpiece statute which was designed to protect the rights of individual citizens held in custody on the suspicion of their involvement in a crime. This statute affirms the long held principle that a suspect held in custody is innocent until it is proven beyond any reasonable doubt before a court of law that he is guilty.



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