April 17, 2017
The crux of the issue in the Sixth Amendment is ensuring a defendant receives a fair trial. The amendment touches on how quickly the case is brought before the court, the makeup of the jury, and access to counsel.
The following is a transcription of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution in its original form.
Amendment VI 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 defence (sic).
Jennifer Gonnerman has written extensively for The New Yorker about one case which highlights the necessity for the Sixth Amendment. She tells us about the injustice suffered by Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager at the time of his arrest.
Browder was only 16 years old in 2010 when he was arrested on robbery allegations. He was taken to the 48th Precinct, fingerprinted and locked in a holding cell for hours before being booked at the Bronx County Criminal Court, she wrote Oct. 6, 2014. He was interrogated by an officer and a prosecutor 17 hours after he was initially picked up, and was charged - the next day - with robbery, grand larceny and assault. He denied all charges were legitimate. Browder was ordered held, bail set at $3,000, and he was transported to Rikers Island.
Rikers is one of the largest penal institutions in our country and is notorious for being a violent facility.
Browder was housed at the Robert N. Davoren Complex at Rikers Island for 74 days before seeing a courtroom. On day 258, he was back in court only to hear “The People are not ready. We are requesting one week.” The next available court date was six weeks away. This happened numerous times over the course of the next three years.
On May 29, 2013, Browder appeared for his 31st court date and was advised his case was being dismissed. Browder was being released after enduring three years in prison, two years in solitary confinement and allegations of abuse by staff at the prison. During that time, his classmates graduated high school and he attempted suicide.
Browder was subjected to the violent conditions of one of the worst institutions. Worse, the incarceration was extended time after time after time because the court was either unprepared or unable to hear his case. At one point, Browder arrived for a hearing only to be rescheduled because one of the attorneys was away on vacation.
Some would argue he languished fairly, as that is the process of the court system. One should note, though, that the accusing witness changed his story so many times, one of which was the moment he was identifying Browder. A three-year wait to begin hearing the facts of a case is quite simply unjust.
There are less tragic tales of injustice, and on the opposite side of the coin there are other cases that ignite the public’s fury. Some cite flaws in the justice system, calling it broken.
While I believe it’s fair to say our system is far from perfect, it’s cases like Kalief Browder's which highlight the necessity for the Sixth Amendment. Our country requires some basis for what is expected of the justice system. Checks must be in place to keep the court in order and protect citizens' freedoms.
When left unchecked, or overburdened, people's lives are irrevocably altered. Filing suit alleging a violation of the Sixth Amendment is one recourse.
Browder’s case illuminates numerous ills in the system, an overwhelmed court system and abuses in the prison system, among others. Society is tasked with the responsibility to resolve these issues and demand better conditions and stronger adherence to the Sixth Amendment.
Laurie Chapman publishes Political Broad bi-monthly and takes an informative, opinionated peek at the functions of government. If you have a suggestion for the author, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 208-983-1200.