The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, contains
a simple yet intricate clause which states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the
accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial”XXX. The purpose
of the ‘Speedy Trial Clause’as it is known, is protect a defendant from a prolonged
delay between indictment and trial.   However the vague wording of this clause have resulted
in differing interpetations over time making it matter of ongoing which extends
into the modern era. In order to understand the complexities in interpretation
of the speedy trial clause,   its historical origins will be reviewed,
relevant U.S. Supreme Court rulings will be examined , and some current controversies
involving of the Speedy Trial Clause will be described.

Historical Origins

            The origins of
the Speedy Trial Clause derive from old English laws, which influenced the
framers of the United States Constitution.   In
1166, King Henry
II of England enacted the Assize of Clarendon, a set of rules of both criminal and civil procedure. Rule number four
contained the basic concept that an accused person should be promptly brought to
trial before a judge.



Fifty years after the Assize
of Clarendon, the Magna Carta, a
peace treaty between King John and rebel barons, stated the principle that criminal justice should not be

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 “To no one will we sell, to
no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”

This principle was further reinforced by the prominent Elizabethan Judge Sir
Edward Coke in 1642 when he states
that  judges were required to give a
prisoner ‘full and speedy justice’. A speedy trial provision was subsequently  incorporated into the Declaration of Rights drafted by George Mason when establishing the
Commonwealth of Virginia:

“That in all capital or criminal
prosecutions a man has a right to demand … a speedy trial…”

The framers of the Constitution understood that a
“speedy trial” was an essential right for the people of the new Country and it
was incorporated into the Bill of Rights in
1791 without significant discussion. However, those framers, could not have
anticipated the quantity of dispute which would arise from it.


Relevant U.S. Supreme Court

A number Supreme Court cases have resulted from
controversy’s regarding interpretation of the Speedy trial clause.   

In the important case of Klopfer v North Carolina
(1967), the defendant, Peter Klopfer, participated in a civil rights
demonstration, and was charged by the state of North Carolina with criminal
trespass. After an indecision by a jury at trial, North Carolina moved for a
“nolle prosequi with leave”, which allowed North Carolina to indefinitely
suspend the prosecution and return to the case in the future. Klopfer objected,
saying that the nolle prosequi violated his right to a speedy trial. After the
Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that Klopfer’s Sixth Amendment rights
were not violated, the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S.
Supreme Court unanimously ruled that indefinitely suspending a trial infringed
upon one’s right to a speedy trial. (OYEZ) This case brought ambiguities of the
Speedy Trial Clause to the court’s attention, and set a precedent for other
defendents to challenge their right to a speedy trial. This opportunity, which
contained little risk, would be increasingly utilized by many. (OYEZ)

            Just five years
after Klopfer v North Carolina, the case of Barker v Wingo (1972) was
brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1958, an elderly couple were beaten
to death by intruders in Kentucky. Two men, Silas Manning and Willie Barker,
were arrested and indicted. While both men were indicted at the same time, the
state of Kentucky believed that the testimony of Manning would be essential in
the conviction of Barker. Therefore, – Kentucky obtained multiple continuances
on Barker’s trial while attempting to convict Manning. Barker did not contest
these continuances at the time, and his trial was scheduled for March 19, 1963.
When the state requested more continuances, Barker objected, however, he was
unsuccessful in his attempt. Barker was convicted, and upon appeal, his
conviction was affirmed. In district court, Barker argued that his right to a
speedy trial was violated. The district court denied this, and an appellate
court affirmed this decision. When the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme
Court, the justices formed their decision based upon one question; whether
one’s right to a speedy trial can be implicitly waived. In a unanimous
decision, the court decided that one’s right could be waived. Thus, Barker’s
former conviction was not overturned. (OYEZ)

            In the majority
opinion of Barker v Wingo, Justice Lewis Powell emphasized that   the
circumstances of each situation are unique and therefore determination of what
constitutes ‘a speedy trial’ requires the weighting of different factors for  each case. The  Court held that a four factor system should be
used to determine what a speedy trial means in each instance. These four
factors are : the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, “whether and
when the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial”(OYEZ), and the harm which the delay caused the
defendant. (OYEZ)

The first factor, which is perhaps the most obvious one, is
the length of the delay. ^x. A specific duration of time wasn’t explicitly
defined within which the trial must occur, which stays true to Justice Powell’s
belief that because every case is different, a single duration of time cannot
apply universally.  

The second factor is the reason for the delay. ^ibid.
The State has
the burden to justify the length of time awaiting trial.   Justifiable reasons for a delay could include
a locating a missing witness, plea discussions with the defendant, or the
defendant’s request for more time to prepare for trial.    If there is a justifiable reason for the delay,
such as a
missing witness, plea discussions with the defendant, or the defendant’s
request for more time to prepare for trial,
than the defendant’s rights have not been violated. On the other hand, if the
reason for delay is to harm the defendant or because of overcrowded courts, the
reason is not valid, and therefore the accused’s right is violated. Therefore,
the judgement regarding if the defendant’s rights were violated is based on
whether the reason for delay is justifiable or not. ^X

The third factor, “whether and when the defendant asserted
his right to a speedy trial”IBID, is less vague than the previous two,
for it deals with only the actions of the defendant. If the court believes that
the defendant wants the trial, based upon his actions, then the court will most
likely rule that the defendant’s rights were violated. In Barker v Wingo
(1972), this factor was heavily important. Barker implicitly waived his
right to a speedy trial, by not objecting to any of the continuances. ^IBID

The last factor, established by the U.S.
Supreme Court in Barker v Wingo (1972), is, “the degree of harm to the
defendant that the delay has caused”. ^IBID   The intent of this fourth factor is “to prevent oppressive
pretrial incarceration, minimize the anxiety that accompanies public
accusation, and to limit the impairment of the accused’s defense.”  While preventing
 prolonged pretrial incarceration and
associated anxiety are considered in the analysis, impairment if the accused’s
defense as a result of delay is weighted heavily in favor of the defense. The
death of a witness, or loss of physical evidence, are examples of facts that
could impact the accused’s ability to defend himself.

  For example, death of a witness, or loss of physical evidence could
impact the accused’s ability to defend himself
and therefore the court weigh
these factors heavily in favor of a speedy trial violation. 

Finally, there is one key excerpt of the majority opinion
of Barker v Wingo which emphasizes the importance the Supreme Court
places on the right to a speedy trial. Justice Powell notes,

“The amorphous quality of the right also leads to the
unsatisfactorily severe remedy of dismissal of the indictment when the right
has been deprived. This is indeed a serious consequence, because it means that
a defendant who may be guilty of a serious crime will go free, without having
been tried. Such a remedy is more serious than an exclusionary rule or a
reversal for a new trial, but it is the only possible remedy.” (CITE


This excerpt highlights the importance of the right to a
speedy trial from the U.S. Supreme Court’s perspective. Since the result of
violating this right can be dismissal of indictment. The U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated
its’ firm adherence to    this
ideology a year after Barker v Wingo, in the case of Strunk v United
States (1973). Strunk was convicted of a federal offense and was sentenced
to a term of five years, was found by the U.S. Supreme Court to have been
deprived of his right to a speedy trial, and was dismissed from all charges.

The Speedy Trial Act

The Speedy Trial Act.

An increase in crime in the late 1960s resulted in a
backlog of court cases resulting in lengthy pretrial delays. These delays not
only risked violation of the speedy trial clause but resulted in great expense
to taxpayers and defendants jumping bail during release before trial. To
address the problem and clarify ambiguous elements of the Barker v Wingo
majority opinion the United States Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974. The Speedy Trial Act   established
well defined time limits for completing the various stages of a federal
criminal prosecution.       (CITE Two examples of
these time limits are that an indictment must be filed within 30 days of a
defendant’s arrest and if a defendant enters a plea of not guilty, trial must
commence within 70 days from the filing of the indictment or first appearance
in court. (Cite Speedy Trial Act of 1974) These restrictions created a
more efficient system for lower courts to determine the proper ruling for a
defendant.  In addition, the Speedy trial act
was envisioned as a means of protect society in promptly bring criminals to
trial.  Although this act succeeded in defining explicit
time limits for various stages of a prosecution, many more controversies arose
regarding the interpretation of the Speedy Trial Clause and Speedy Trial Act.

More Important Court Cases

Even though Speedy Trial Act was meant to clarify
ambiguities regarding the right to a speedy trial, more case still arose
regarding the matter.  Among the
most significant cases after passage of the Speedy Trial Act is Doggett v
United States (1992). In 1980, Marc Doggett was indicted on federal drug
charges. When the Drug Enforcement Administration went to arrest Doggett, they
discovered that he had left the country. Doggett returned to the United States
in 1982 but was never made aware of the indictment against him. (OYEZ) Years
later, the government ran a credit check, found Doggett’s location, arrested
him, and prosecuted him. (Casebriefs) Doggett claimed that his right to a
speedy trial had been violated. After his motion was dismissed by the lower
courts, the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case. (IBID)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Doggett, finding
that the length of time between indictment and prosecution is included in one’s
right to a speedy trial. Furthermore, they ruled that because Doggett had no
knowledge of his indictment before arrest, he could not have been penalized for
not raising the speedy trial defense earlier.(OYEZ)  

Some recent cases regarding a right to a speedy trial have focused
on violations  of the Speedy Trial Act
such as in Zedner v United States (2006).. In this case Jacob Zedner,
who was being prosecuted for securities fraud, was advised by the District
Court judge to waive his right under the Speedy Trial Act “for all time”. (Cite
majority opinion) Zedner agreed, and signed a waiver concerning the matter.
Ninety one days later, Zedner’s trial began, and eventually, he was convicted
and sentenced to jail. (OYEZ) Zedner argued that his right to a speedy trial
was violated, for the Speedy Trial Act states that, “Trial must commence within
70 days from the date the information or indictment was filed…”(Speedy Trial
Act). The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Zedner holding that Zedner
could not have waived his rights to a speedy trial, because the Speedy Trial
Act does not explicitly admit the waiver of this right. (OYEZ).  In this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms
the constitutionality of the Speedy Trial Act, as a means of interpreting the
speedy trial clause.


The precedent set in Doggett
v United States (1992) had made many people believe that the time from
indictment to conviction needed to be speedy. However the in the recent case of
Betterman v Montana (2016) surprised many people.  Brandon Betterman
failed to show up to court when charged with assault. He eventually turned
himself in, saying that he did not have the money or a means of transportation
to arrive to court. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to five years
in prison. On April 19, 2012 Betterman plead guilty to jumping bail but it was
not until January 27, 2013 that his sentence hearing occurred. Betterman then filed
a motion to dismiss his chargeson the grounds that his right to a speedy trial
had been violated. After multiple lower court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled that the time between the guilty plea and sentencing is not included in
one’s right to a speedy trial. (OYEZ) . 
The Court’s finding was based on an originalist interpretation of who
the right to a speedy trial protects, that is, the right of the “accused” to
have a speedy trial which is different from the “convicted” having a right to a
speedy sentencing.



Another current controversy regarding the right to a speedy
trial involves detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay^XXX. The United
States has justified depriving the detainees rights through the USA Patriot Act
(2001), which was enacted to serve as both a punishment and deterrent of
terrorists, in response to the World Trade Center attacks on September 11,
2001. ^( According to the
USA Patriot Act if a person is suspected to be a threat to national security,
or if emergency circumstances are present, the federal government can detain
the person for six months or longer with criminal charges or deportation
proceeding brought against the suspect.  (

Critics of the USA Patriot Act argue that it is
unconstitutional, as it deprives detainees at Guantanamo Bay of fundamental
rights. (ruthford) They argue that although many of these detainees may be
guilty of terroristacts there is a possibility that some are innocent as well
and deserve a speedy trial.  In counterbalance it
can be argued if a detainee’s speedy trial clock starts the moment that he is
brought into detention, then all of the detainees who are held in detention
have an argument for dismissal of charges and should never face a court trial,
a substantial threat to US security. While a speedy trial case involving Guantanomo detainees
has not yet appeared before the Supreme Court, the attempt to balance
individual liberties and national security would be would be challenging and
the implications would be far reaching.


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