The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

Witness and Counsel in Criminal Trials

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…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.

If you are ever accused of a crime—and we hope that you never are—you will expect to know who is accusing you, and why. You will also expect to be able to call witnesses who will tell your side of the story, perhaps even provide you with an alibi. And, of course, the first thing you will probably do is ask for (and get) a lawyer.

Why should you expect all of these things? Because of the last three rights mentioned in the 6th Amendment. 

Such rights do not exist in some other parts of the world. And, indeed, all three of these rights had an uneven history in England. But all of these guarantees—that the accused has the right to hear and cross-examine the witnesses against him, that he can procure witnesses in his favor, and that he may seek the assistance of counsel—were fairly well established on this side of the ocean by the time the First Congress drafted the Bill of Rights. In fact, there was so little disagreement on these three provisions that there was barely a hiccup from the time James Madison initially proposed them until their ultimate ratification by the states. While some of the interpretations for these provisions have expanded over time, their essential purpose has remained the same: they help to ensure that defendants in a criminal trial are given a fair opportunity to mount an effective defense.