Introducing Defendants' Rights

Both sides in The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (1995), invoked the phrase “search for the truth.” Prosecutors claimed they were searching for the truth and that the defense was trying to hide the truth. Defense attorneys asserted that prosecutors were putting barriers in the path of finding the truth. Were both sides more interested in winning than in discovering the truth?

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argues that the criminal courts process features multiple goals. Seeking the truth is an important goal—did the defendant commit the crime that he or she is accused of committing? Protecting innocent citizens is a second goal. Precautions are taken at various stages in the processing of criminal cases so that innocent people aren't convicted. Ensuring fairness is a third goal. Courts in the United States are judged not only on the accuracy of their results, but also on the fairness of their process. Both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments guarantee due process, or fundamental fairness under the law, to all citizens who are accused of crimes.

What if truth were the only goal of the courts? Dershowitz argues that, if that were so, the criminal justice system would operate much differently than it does today. Police could torture suspects and their families until the suspects confessed. Police could enter citizens' homes randomly. Courts could force defendants to take the witness stand to testify against themselves. Prosecutors could try a citizen for the same crime over and over again until a jury returned a guilty verdict. Juries could be drawn from only a select segment of the community. Juries could convict on much less evidence than that which would produce proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The adage that “it's better to let 99 guilty people go free than convict one innocent person” expresses the essence of the criminal courts process. This philosophy is reflected in a number of fundamental defendants' rights. These rights level the playing field, giving a defendant a fair chance against the government—with its vast resources—in legal battles. Many of these rights trace their origins to the Bill of Rights, which acts as a restraint on governmental abuse of power.