Street Law: A Course in Practical Law

Chapter 14: Criminal Justice Process: The Trial

Chapter Overviews

The U.S. Constitution entitles accused people with certain rights.

Right to Trial by Jury  The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in most criminal cases. However, a jury is not required in every case, and most trials proceed without one. Jury panels are selected from voter registration or tax lists and aim to be representative of the community. A preemptory challenge allows an attorney to exclude a limited number of jurors without giving a reason. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases that a juror may not be excluded on the basis of race.

Right to Speedy and Public Trial  The Sixth Amendment provides defendants with a right to a speedy trial in all criminal cases. Without this requirement, an innocent person might be denied fundamental liberties while awaiting trial in jail for something he or she did not do. The case may be dismissed if the person does not receive a speedy trial. Defendants often waive, or give up, their right to a speedy trial because they may need more time to prepare.

Right to Compulsory Process and to Confront Witnesses  Defendants in a criminal case have a right to compel, or force, witnesses to testify through the use of a subpoena—a court order that requires witnesses to testify. The Sixth Amendment also provides defendants with the right to face the witnesses testifying against them and to ask them questions through cross examination.

Freedom from Self-Incrimination  The Fifth Amendment protects a defendant from having to testify against himself or herself in a criminal case. The prosecutor cannot use the decision not to testify as evidence of the defendant's guilt. Regardless of innocence or guilt, defense attorneys often believe it is better that their clients do not take the stand. A witness who is given immunity cannot be prosecuted based on any information provided in testimony. Sometimes the government will grant immunity when the information a person has is more important than prosecuting that person.

Right to an Attorney  The Sixth Amendment provides each defendant with the right to have a lawyer assist with his or her defense. In cases for which imprisonment is a possible punishment, the government provides defense counsel for indigent (poor) defendants.

Criminal Appeals  If the jury returns a verdict of "not guilty," the case is usually over. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defense may ask the judge to overturn the jury's verdict. The defense may also appeal to a higher court, known as an appellate court, claiming that there were legal errors made by the judge during the trial.

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