The speedy trial, a right guaranteed in the United States under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, can actually vary considerably in length. This right is generally focused on forcing courts to prosecute cases in a timely fashion, with no actual limits being placed on the length of the trial once it has begun; the goal is to avoid keeping people in jail awaiting trial for indefinite periods of time, not to truncate trials. A number of factors can influence how long it takes for a case to go to trial and even in areas where there are statutes requiring prosecution by a certain date, there can be special circumstances which lead to delays.
A number of important rights for people accused of crimes can be found in the Sixth Amendment, which reads: "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 defense."
When the Constitution was drafted, there were concerns about the rights of accused individuals. This Amendment, among other things, entitles people to legal counsel, the opportunity to know the charges against them, the right to a jury, and the chance to cross examine witnesses. The speedy trial clause was designed to address concerns that people could be accused of a crime and held in jail indefinitely, which in addition to causing emotional hardship could also lead to problems with administering businesses and result in negative public perception. When someone is held in jail for a year awaiting trial, for example, it can start to seem like that person has already been convicted.
In some states, the speedy trial clause has been addressed with statutes which require that a case go to trial within a set period of time, such as six months. If the case cannot be brought to trial, the charges are dropped. Murder is usually an automatic exception to the speedy trial rule, recognizing that it can take time to gather the material to prosecute a murder. In other states, courts determine the length of a speedy trial, and rule on individual situations when asked to do so. If good reason can be shown for a delay, the trial will be put off.
While the speedy trial is often described as something which protects the defendant, defendants actually can benefit from having a long lag time before trial. Sometimes the speedy trial clause must be invoked against a defendant who attempts to delay a trial longer than a court thinks is reasonable.