The Right to Counsel
A criminal defendant's right to an attorney is found in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires the "assistance of counsel" for the accused "in all criminal prosecutions." This means that a defendant has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney during trial. It also means that if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, in almost all instances the government will appoint one to handle the case, at no cost to the defendant.
Keep in mind that, while the right to counsel is discussed here in connection with a criminal trial, a suspect has the right to a lawyer at almost every important phase of the criminal process, typically from arrest through the first appeal after conviction.
How Does an Attorney Assist a Defendant in a Criminal Case?
The defense attorney's role is of paramount importance in almost every criminal case. While specific duties of an attorney vary depending on the nature of the charges and the case, key responsibilities of any criminal defense lawyer include:
Advising the defendant of his or her rights and explaining what to expect at different stages of the criminal process;
Ensuring that the defendant's constitutional rights are not violated through law enforcement conduct, or in court proceedings;
Negotiating a plea bargain with the government, on the defendant's behalf;
From arraignment to sentencing: investigating facts and evidence, cross-examining government witnesses, objecting to improper questions and evidence, and presenting any legal defenses.
To What Standards is a Criminal Defense Attorney Held?
Courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment right to counsel as guaranteeing the "effective assistance of counsel" to criminal defendants. It doesn't matter whether the attorney is hired by the defendant or appointed by the government. However, questionable strategic choices made by an attorney (and even serious lawyer errors, in some instances) do not usually cause a conviction to be thrown out, unless it is clear that the attorney's incompetence affected the outcome of the case.