The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial….” This provision guarantees that public trials will take place as soon after indictment as possible.
W. Cleon Skousen explained, “A `speedy trial’ is one without unreasonable delay. A defendant may not demand a trial until the prosecuting attorney has had a reasonable time to prepare his case. However, the Supreme Court has held that in time of insurrection, a person may be held indefinitely without trial until public peace has been restored. Temporary incarceration, the Supreme Court felt, is a far less stringent means of protecting the community than resorting to the more extreme measures allowed under martial law. (Martial law permits a state governor to order insurrectionists to be killed if necessary to protect life or to prevent widespread looting and restore peace.)
“The public trial is for the benefit of the accused and not the public. Therefore, if publicity would not be in the interest of justice, the court may exclude all but a few of the public in the interest of the defendant’s rights.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 707.)
George Thomas of The Heritage Foundation explained the Speedy Trial Clause: “From the time of the Assize of Clarendon (1166) and the Magna Carta (1215), the common law created protections in response to English monarchs who imprisoned enemies of the Crown without permitting them access to courts. By 1642, Sir Edward Coke was able to conclude that English judges `have not suffered the prisoner to be long detained, but … have given the prisoner full and speedy justice….’ The evil to be avoided was lengthy pretrial detention….
“The Framers of the Constitution understood that a speedy trial was part of the essence of the rights of Englishmen. When the First Congress drafted the Bill of Rights, it approved without discussion the right to a speedy trial. At that time, the rights to habeas corpus (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2), to nonexcessive bail (Eighth Amendment), and to a speedy trial were seen as interrelated. Under common-law practice, judges would grant a habeas corpus petition and dismiss the indictment if a defendant was detained too long prior to trial. Once the defendant was free, the harm of pretrial detention ceased, and the speedy-trial requirement was moot. The state could, if it wished, reindict later so long as the statute of limitations was not a bar….
“”As with most of the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has incorporated the Speedy Trial Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment and applied it to the states….
“One’s right to a speedy trial in most instances begins from the time of arrest or indictment, not from the moment an investigation begins. It is left to statutes of limitations to cure the abuse of too long an investigation. At present, the Federal Speedy Trial Act (1974) defines the time limits for criminal actions to begin. Generally speaking, an indictment or information must be filed within thirty days of arrest, and a trial should occur within seventy days of the filling….” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 345-346.)