The Vanishing Trial: Watching Our Sixth Amendment Protections Disappear

On June 5, 2020, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released a short film, The Vanishing Trial. It will soon be available for much wider viewing, but this past summer The Philanthropy Roundtable hosted a private screening for some guests. 

After viewing the film, we were joined by a courageous panel, including Kevin Ring and Norman Brown, both of whom experienced what the film calls “the trial penalty” and served time in prison. Danielle Steele Harris and Holly Harris (no relation), both work on criminal justice reform, but from two very different perspectives: Danielle’s husband was incarcerated for 14 years, and she now leads a support group for the wives of incarcerated men; Holly runs the Justice Action Network, which approaches criminal justice from a limited-government and conservative point of view. 

Why would the Roundtable host this conversation? First, our tagline is “Strengthening our Free Society,” and we support donors who are interested in advancing liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility. As such, we have an interest in making sure Americans’ Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial is protected. Further, if violations of that right are impacting someone’s liberty, their opportunities, and their ability to take personal responsibility, we aim to help support philanthropists in their efforts to improve the system. 

We also think it’s important for us to share the stories of people who experience those consequences in real life, to understand how important our individual rights are and to be willing to engage in the hard conversations about what’s causing tensions in the criminal justice system.  

The video below is an example of one of those hard conversations. We discussed the trial penalty and its consequences, and much more—such as how race has become the elephant in the room, why pressure on “white-led” organizations from progressive funders will hurt more than help, and the role of family in successfully reintegrating someone into society. 

For now, here are some quotes from the panelists on how our current system’s approach to avoiding trials and penalties affects those who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment rights: 

  • Norman Brown: “I went to trial, I beat the majority of the charges…at the end of the day, I still ended up with a life sentence.” 
  • Kevin Ring: “The separation of powers is not some abstract concept…what we have now is built for efficiency but not justice.” 
  • Holly Harris: “I’m like a lot of people out there. I felt like if people pled guilty to a crime, they were probably guilty.” 

What has been happening in our criminal justice system with respect to the right to trial should concern anyone who is passionate about constitutional rights, limited government, and liberty. Thanks to The Vanishing Trial, more people are now aware of the problem. Will we soon begin to see solutions as well?

Editor’s note: Debi Ghate serves on the board of directors of FAMM.

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