Amdt6.2.2 Historical Background on Right to a Speedy Trial

Sixth Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and 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 defence.

Safeguards against delay in criminal prosecution predate the Magna Carta and the abandonment of trial by ordeal in England around 1215.1 In 1166, the Assize of Clarendon described a procedure for obtaining speedy justice for accused persons arrested in a place not scheduled to receive an imminent judicial visit.2 Later, Sir Edward Coke listed speed as one of the three essential qualities of justice in his Institutes, a work widely read by lawyers in the American colonies.3 Thus, the right to a speedy trial appears to have been well-established during the colonial period, and several state constitutions already guaranteed the right at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s ratification in 1791.4

Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 223 (1967) ( “[T]he right to a speedy trial . . . has its roots at the very foundation of our English law heritage. Its first articulation in modern jurisprudence appears to have been made in Magna Carta (1215), wherein it was written, ‘We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right'; but evidence of recognition of the right to speedy justice in even earlier times is found in the Assize of Clarendon (1166).” ) (footnotes omitted); see Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience 3 (1985) ( “Trial by jury, as is well known, replaced trial by ordeal after the Church in 1215 proscribed clerical participation in that ‘barbaric’ practice.” ). The ordeal was a trial procedure that sought to procure divine judgment of guilt or innocence through a physical test that, to modern eyes, resembled torture. See John H. Langbein et al., History of the Common Law: The Development of Anglo-American Legal Institutions 43 (2009). Two principal types of ordeal were used in England before 1215: ordeal by hot iron (in which the accused was forced to grip a hot iron and was deemed innocent if the resulting wounds resisted infection) and ordeal by cold water (in which the accused was bound and submerged into cold water on a rope and was deemed innocent if he sank). Id. at 44. back
Klopher, 386 U.S. at 223 n.9 (the sheriffs were to send word to the nearest justice for instructions as to where to take the accused for trial) (citing 2 English Historical Documents 408 (1953)). back
Id. at 224–25 (quoting Edward Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 55 (Brooke ed., 5th ed. 1797)). back
Id. at 225–26. back