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What the Sixth Amendment Guarantees

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal counsel at all significant stages of a criminal proceeding. This right is so important that there is an associated right given to people who are unable to pay for legal assistance to have counsel appointed and paid for by the government. The federal criminal justice system and all states have procedures for appointing counsel for indigent defendants. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel has been extended to the following:

  • The interrogation phase of a criminal investigation
  • The trial itself
  • Sentencing
  • At least an initial appeal of any conviction

If individuals are arrested in the United States they have a range of rights that give them certain protections, even if they are not a citizen of the United States. These rights include the following:

  • A trial by a jury (in most cases)
  • The jury to hear all of the witnesses and see all of the evidence
  • Presence at the trial and while the jury is hearing the case
  • The opportunity to see, hear, and confront the witnesses presenting the case against them
  • The opportunity to call witnesses and to have the court issue subpoenas to compel the witnesses to appear
  • The chance to testify themselves should they choose to do so
  • The option to refuse to testify
  • Access to a criminal defense lawyer. If individuals cannot afford to hire their own criminal defense lawyer, a public defender will represent them. This lawyer can act on their behalf before, during, and after the trial
  • The right to cross-examine the witnesses giving testimony against them
  • The right to compel the state to prove its case against them beyond a reasonable doubt

A judge will appoint an attorney for an indigent defendant; this attorney will be compensated at government expense if at the conclusion of the case the defendant could possibly be imprisoned for a period of more than six months. In reality, judges almost always appoint attorneys for indigents in practically every case in which a jail sentence is a possibility regardless of how long the sentence may be. Generally, a judge will appoint the attorney for an indigent defendant at the defendant's first court appearance; for most defendants, the first court appearance is an arraignment or a hearing to set bail.

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