Imagine that you have suddenly been accused of a crime. The news media catches wind and publishes the accusation and writes about you in an unflattering manner. Determined to dig up evidence, police and reporters alike plumb through your personal life and try to interview anyone who might dislike you. Your employer, not wanting bad press for employing someone accused of a crime, either fires or suspends you. Friends stop calling and people distance themselves. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are completely innocent: Being accused of a crime is a tremendous burden. Many people view an accusation as automatically truthful.
The extreme burdens imposed by merely being accused of a crime make it imperative that everyone enjoys the right to a fair trial. According to Cornell University Law School, Americans’ right to a fair trial is covered in the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. All citizens are guaranteed “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…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 defense.”
Simply put, you have the right to a public trial by jury in which you and your attorney have access to all evidence against you and may present witnesses on your behalf.
These guarantees were put in the U.S. Constitution because many of the European states from which America’s early colonists originated had no such guarantees. Instead, heavy-handed autocracies, often monarchies, treated their citizens cruelly. Punishments were draconian, trials were simply rubber-stamps for king-appointed prosecutors or officers of the court, and often people were imprisoned, or even executed, without knowing the charges against them. Life in Europe up through the end of the 18th century was, to say the least, sometimes tough. In establishing a new nation, the founding fathers wanted to ensure that the new United States of America would not devolve into an oppressive autocracy like many countries in Europe.
On a personal level, many colonists and their descendants, later to become the original batch of U.S. citizens, could sympathize with being disadvantaged at trial. The U.S. Constitution provides guarantees of fair treatment for all citizens regardless of background or status – a situation that did not occur in Europe. In many European states people were treated unfairly, both socially and by the government, due to racial, ethnic, religious, or national origin status. Going to trial as a person who was different from the accepted norm, say as an Irish Catholic being tried in Protestant England, was a virtual guarantee of a harsh conviction.
Colonists often left their homes for America due to persecution. They could sympathize with the dismay of being hauled into court and being pilloried for being different. Knowledgeable of this disadvantage, many of America’s early leaders were quick to want a formal constitution to protect the rights of those deemed unsympathetic as they themselves, or their ancestors, had been deemed unsympathetic back in Europe.
Finally, respect for the principles of freedom and liberty, both essential to American philosophy, requires authorities to err on the side of the citizen as opposed to the government. Providing a trial system that affords generous rights to the defendant, regardless of how unsympathetic he or she may be, is necessary to preserve freedom and liberty. Many citizens complain when a seemingly-despicable defendant is acquitted, but erring on the side of freedom and liberty to ensure those qualities for all citizens is what America is all about.