3 judges dissent on rehearing denial in stun belt case

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

The full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to not rehear an Indiana case about a convicted murder’s ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims relating to a stun belt used in court, though three judges disagreed and felt the northern Indiana federal judge’s decision should be upheld.

An order came from the 7th Circuit today in John M. Stephenson v. Bill Wilson, superintendent of Indiana State Prison, No. 09-2924, with three dissenting judges writing about their disagreement in denying a rehearing en banc request. Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner wrote a 20-page dissent, which included a page of photos from news video depicting the man’s stun belt during trial. Judges David Hamilton and Ann Williams joined the dissent, essentially challenging the Supreme Court of the United States to consider taking the case if a certiorari request is made.

In August, a three-judge panel – led by authoring Judge Richard Posner - reversed a 2009 ruling from U.S. Judge Theresa Springmann in the Northern District of Indiana that Stephenson didn’t receive ineffective assistance of counsel during trial.

Stephenson was convicted by a jury in 1997 for three murders and sentenced to death. Four jurors later said in affidavits they were aware Stephenson was wearing a stun belt. After he unsuccessfully appealed to the SCOTUS, Stephenson filed a writ of federal habeas corpus and Judge Springmann tossed out his capital sentence on the stun belt claim, but didn’t rule on other issues he raised.

The 7th Circuit last year ordered the District judge to reconsider her ruling, finding that the question of prejudice from the stun belt wearing at the penalty hearing requires more consideration. Stephenson filed a petition for rehearing en banc in September, and now a majority of the judges are denying that.

But Judge Rovner found that the majority’s analysis overlooks “the inherent unquantifiable prejudice of a visible restraint” and that the rationale is otherwise inconsistent with SCOTUS precedent on this subject.

“Although the Supreme Court’s cases on restraints have dealt with shackles rather than stun belts, there is no reason to think the Court would treat a visible stun belt any differently than other types of visible restraints,” Judge Rovner wrote.

She stated that the panel decision’s analysis began on the wrong foot in failing to acknowledge that inherent prejudice of a visible restraint, and that SCOTUS precedent must be applied starting with that recognition.

Judge Rovner wrote that she doesn’t doubt the evidence against Stephenson was sufficient to convict him, but both the inherently prejudicial nature of a visible restraint and the lack of overwhelming evidence establishing his guilt show that he’s established a “better than negligible probability that he might have been acquitted had he not been noticeably restrained.”

Stephenson is entitled to a new trial as the District judge concluded, but Judge Rovner wrote that the panel’s conclusion that his claim fails because more concrete proof of the stun belt impact is not consistent with higher caselaw. The panel’s decision to remand on the penalty phase aspect isn’t adequate, she wrote.

“But whatever relief Stephenson might obtain as to the penalty phase will not address the prejudice he experienced vis-à-vis the jury’s assessment of his guilt,” Judge Rovner wrote. “The proper course would be for this court to affirm the district court’s decision.”


  • The King's Court
    Forcing a defendant to wear a stun belt, in court or otherwise, is a violation of american principles! It is also unconstitutional!

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.