As life begins to bounce back after over a year in quarantine, courts around the country are resuming in-person hearings. At Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, COVID-19 restrictions are lifting to make way for the first hearings since the fall of 2020. While many communities are breathing a sigh of relief as infection rates die down, prisoners, accused persons in police custody, and their legal representatives have a far more serious question weighing on their minds: do the COVID-19 trial delays jeopardize the right to a fair trial?
The Sixth Amendment
For most people, reciting any amendment after the Second is a challenge, but one of the most important rights awarded to those accused of a crime is the Sixth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment is as follows:
"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[…]."
This amendment is also called "the right to a fair and speedy trial." Fairness in the justice system is easier to interpret. It is one reason we use juries and judges to weigh in on cases. However, the definition of "speedy" is debatable, but in some cases, the waiting period before trial is nearly a crime in its own right. So, why is it so important to have a speedy trial?
The Need for Speed
Criminal trials have to cover a lot of ground, from witness testimonies and cross-examinations to examining evidence and deliberation. These things take time, but what happens when it takes too much time?
Reason #1: Cruel and Unusual
If you keep reading the Constitution past the Sixth Amendment, you'll stumble onto a passage that says this:
"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
This is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Essentially, excessive punishments and/or extremely high bail or fines should never be used against those accused of a crime. However, the term "cruel and unusual punishment" is more open to interpretation than you might think. Many would argue that waiting in prison for years before you ever get the chance to plead your case in court is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (not to mention the Sixth).
The United States' justice system operates under the assumption that all people are innocent until proven guilty. Keeping someone in prison for the length of a jail sentence doesn't exactly seem like they're innocent. Plus, if someone spends decades in jail awaiting trial for a petty crime, it could be interpreted as a cruel and unusual punishment.
Reason #2: Evidence
As we get older, memories from childhood and adolescence get a little foggier. The same is true for witnesses and the accused. Witness testimonies are one of the most powerful tools in a criminal trial – they offer a perspective into the crime that few people have. They can provide descriptions, evidence, and context for the crime, and they often have the power to send someone away forever or set them free.
However, when a significant amount of time passes, witness testimonies may not be as rock-solid as they could have been. Even the accused might find it harder to remember details and testify on their behalf.
Additionally, some types of evidence are easily contaminated or lost over time, especially if they are handled repeatedly. DNA evidence, a groundbreaking forensic technique, can break down due to heat, light, mold, and moisture. Most labs store DNA evidence in a way that protects against degradation, but it is still vulnerable in transport from one lab to another or from the lab to the courthouse.
Reason #3: Juries
For many people, the jury's out on whether juried trials should continue to be an active practice – assembling one is time-consuming, and juries are more than capable of making the wrong choice. Regardless of how you feel about juries, delaying a trial doesn't make assembling a proper jury any easier.
Putting together a jury is more work than you might realize. The court has to find people who have no connection to the accused, the witnesses, or the victim (if applicable). This is easier said than done, and many jurors are removed from their positions due to bias which means the process starts all over again.
COVID-19 poses its own issues as courts attempt to figure out how to maintain social distancing and keep the members of the court safe. Plus, it's not as if the court can guarantee that the jurors will have no exposure whatsoever to the virus.
COVID-19 and Protecting Your Rights
COVID-19 has brought up many important questions about timeliness and safety, and it's reasonable to say that while the pandemic stopped nearly everything, our rights as Americans should remain unaffected.
If you feel that your right to a fair and speedy trial has been affected, speak to a lawyer immediately. They will evaluate the duration of your trial compared to similar cases and determine whether your Sixth Amendment right has been violated.