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Trial Rights

Just as individuals have rights during the arrest and investigation stages, they also have rights during a trial - beginning with the right to a speedy trial itself. Defendants also have the right to face their accusers, the right to refuse to incriminate themselves, and the right to avoid being prosecuted twice for the same offense, among others. This section lists the trial rights that individuals have and describes how they operate.

Right to a Speedy Jury Trial

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides criminal defendants with the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury. This means that within a reasonably short time after arrest a defendant will be brought to trial and that the defendant has the right to be tried by a jury. In order to convict the jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Most states have laws that determine what a "reasonable time" is to have a trial. Whether a trial is, in fact, speedy enough is determined by the circumstances of the case and the reasons for any delays, regardless of local statutory language. If the court determines there has been an unreasonable delay the case is dismissed.

The guarantee of a trial by an impartial jury, in most states, means that 12 jurors must reach a unanimous verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty." Failure to reach an agreement as to the verdict results in a "hung jury." The judge, in these instances, may declare a "mistrial" and the case is dismissed or the trial begins all over again.

Double Jeopardy

Another commonly used but poorly understood legal phrase, double jeopardy refers to the right of an individual not to be prosecuted multiple times for the same offense. There are actions that do not trigger double jeopardy protection. The dismissal of an indictment, for example, does not prevent a new indictment from being filed. The theory here is that prior to a jury being sworn in no jeopardy has attached. In cases that do not involve a jury jeopardy attaches when the first witness is sworn in.

New or additional court proceedings may not commence after one of four events:

  • After a jury's verdict of acquittal;
  • After a trial court's dismissal;
  • After a trial court grants a mistrial; and
  • On appeal after a conviction.

The concept of double jeopardy can be quite complex and varies between states, so consulting an attorney about double jeopardy issues is recommended.

Cruel & Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution gives convicts the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. This right protects the conditions of confinement and treatment by corrections personnel. There is no official definition of "cruel and unusual."

When challenging the conditions of confinement a prisoner must usually show that the institution's officers or officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's constitutional rights. This means that the employees knew of a risk, chose not to take any steps to remedy the problem, and the inmate's fundamental rights were violated as a result.

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