The Bill of Rights: the Story Behind the Amendments

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The Bill of Rights: The Story Behind the Amendments
Part 4: Amendments V, VI, and VII
Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Americans were sometimes convicted of murder or treason by a simple decision of a judge or a small judicial panel. Also, people could be tried again and again on the same charges, no matter the previous outcomes. A rich revolutionary like John Hancock could afford a good lawyer to help him persuade a judge or jury to vote not guilty once or twice maybe, but British law at that time put no restriction on how many times the government could prosecute people for the same exact offense. Lastly, soldiers and government officials would take nearly everything they could get their hands on from the houses of Americans and give it to soldiers and other public officials, and the Americans would get nothing in return.

Amendment VI
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.

This seems so natural to us today. But in the 18th Century, none of these things was normal. People were often convicted by judges who didn't hear much evidence (and didn't really want to) or never asked for any. Trials, if held at all, were rarely public. Witness testimony was often kept secret, and defense lawyers were not exactly common.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This Amendment really reinforced the need to abide by the laws as written. Since many suits were more than 20 dollars, this Amendment served to reinforce the Sixth Amendment provision for trial by jury. The second part of the Seventh Amendment reinforces the idea that the courts should adhere to the law of the land and not make up their own laws, something not always found at British courts.

Next page > Amendments VIII, IX, and X > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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