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3 judges dissent on rehearing denial in stun belt case

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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.”
 

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  • 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!

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  1. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

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  3. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  4. JLAP and other courtiers ... Those running court systems, have most substance abuse issues. Probably self medicating to cover conscience issues arising out of acts furthering govt corruption

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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