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Sixth Amendment Appeals

Confrontation Clause and Speedy Trial Appeals

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the Georgia Constitution, guarantees to criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at all "critical stages" of a case, which include arraignment, pretrial motions, trial, sentencing, motion for new trial and direct appeal. If this right is violated, it may result in the exclusion of evidence at trial. Otherwise, a violation may form the basis for an appeal of one's conviction. More about the right to counsel can be found here. Below is a general discussion of another component of the Sixth Amendment, the right to confront the witnesses against you. For more information, contact a Cobb County Appeals Lawyer today. 

The Right to Cross Examine Witnesses

Prior to trial, a criminal defendant is entitled to know the identity of the witnesses who will be called by the government at trial. Particular discovery statutes, which vary state by state, will entitle a defendant to additional information regarding these witnesses. The constitutional right to confrontation means the right to cross-examine, and in Georgia a criminal defendant has the right to a "thorough and sifting" cross-examination of the State's witnesses. 

Hearsay is a term that many people use, but don't necessarily understand the legal meaning of. The legal definition of hearsay is an out-of-court statement being offered for the truth of the matter asserted. If someone said something outside of the courtroom and a party wishes to introduce that statement into evidence to establish the truth of the statement, that is hearsay. 

Hearsay is generally not admissible at trial, because it is inherently unreliable and, as explained in more detail below, it may violate a defendant's constitutional right of confrontation. There are many exceptions to the prohibition of hearsay, however, and those exceptions would take dozens of pages to cover. 

Even if an out-of-court statement is admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule, the same statement may still be violative of the confrontation clause. This will hinge on a determination of whether the statement is defined as "testimonial" or "nontestimonial." A very general definition of testimonial are those statements that the declarant (speaker of the statement) could reasonably expect would later be used in prosecution of the defendant. Testimonial statements are inadmissible unless the declarant is available to testify at trial or, at the very least, was previously made available to the defendant for cross-examination.

Nontestimonial statements are more informal statements, typically made to non-law enforcement persons or, if made to law enforcement, in the context of an emergency situation where the primary goal is getting assistance to meet that emergency. Nontestimonial statements will not be violative of the confrontation clause and are admissible so long as they otherwise meet the criteria of a "firmly rooted" hearsay exception, such as the "excited utterance" exception. 

Confrontation Issues on Appeal

Any time an issue of this nature arises at a trial, the trial attorney should make a timely and specific hearsay objection, but should also make a specific objection on the basis of the confrontation clause. If this is done, the issue is probably preserved for appeal (assuming the objection is overruled by the trial judge). 

Just like any other alleged error that occurs at a trial, the appellate court will consider first whether admission of the statement(s) was an error. If the court finds as such, it will then have to consider whether the error was harmful or harmless. This will depend on the strength or weakness of the evidence against the defendant otherwise. If the hearsay evidence was very damaging in the context of a case where the evidence was other otherwise thin, the error in admitting it is more likely to be harmful. 

Following the seminal case of Crawford v. Washington, the law on the confrontation clause has shifted dramatically, and the law is ever-evolving. When an appellate lawyer identifies a potential confrontation clause issue, it must be thoroughly researched and analyzed. If an error of this nature occurred, the defendant will need the assistance of a Criminal Appeals Attorney in Georgia to analyze the issue under both Federal and Georgia law. 

Speedy Trial Issues on Appeal

Georgia defendants have both a constitutional and statutory right to a speedy trial. For this section, only the constitutional right will be discussed. This is because a violation of the statutory right, if raised on appeal, will normally be pretty clear cut. 

The Sixth Amendment provides for a speedy trial, but does not define exactly what that means. The United States Supreme Court has, through the years, developed a test for determining whether the right has been violated. The four part test examines (a) the length of the delay, (b) the reason for the delay, (c) whether the defendant in due course asserted his or her right to a trial, and (d) the harm suffered by the defendant because of the delay.

In examining the record and any evidence introduced subsequent to a motion to dismiss based on an alleged constitutional speedy trial violation, the appellate court will weigh the various factors and assign certain weight to each party on each factor. If the court determines that the defendant's right to a speedy trial has been violated, the case must be dismissed and further prosecution is barred. 

For more information regarding Sixth Amendment issues on appeal, contact a Georgia Criminal Appeals Lawyer at 404-985-9772.

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