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7th Circuit reverses lower court on stun-belt issue

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District judge’s decision that a man convicted of murder received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial because his attorney didn’t object to the state making him wear a stun belt in court.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Richard Posner noted U.S. District Judge Theresa Springmann in the Northern District of Indiana didn’t rule on any other grounds of relief that John Stephenson argued, which may have been a mistake. If those other grounds of relief were before the Circuit Court, it may have agreed with one of them and spared the parties further proceedings and possible appeals.

In John M. Stephenson v. Bill Wilson, superintendent of Indiana State Prison, No. 09-2924, the 7th Circuit Court only had to address Stephenson’s argument that the use of the stun belt was sufficiently questionable and an objection to his being forced to wear it during trial without showing he presented a security risk would, or at least should, have been granted, which shows counsel was deficient in not making the objection.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in his post-conviction case that “prevailing norms at the time of Stephenson’s trial required counsel to object to visible restraints where there is no evidence suggesting escape, violence, or disruptive behavior,” but if his lawyer had objected, the objection would have been overruled. The justices noted the three murders were related to drug activity, premeditated, and there was testimony that Stephenson had threatened to kill a critical witness, a possible accomplice.

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 was unsuccessful appealing to the Supreme Court, he sought a writ of federal habeas corpus, in which District Judge Springmann tossed out his capital sentence.

The law says placing any kind of visible restraint on a defendant’s movement during a criminal trial was allowed only if the particular defendant was too dangerous to be allowed in the courtroom without a restraint and less conspicuous security measures, such as seating guards near the defendant, wouldn’t be sufficient to ensure the safety of the courtroom and prevent escape.

That leads to the question of what type of restraint should have been used. Using shackles, which could be hidden under a cloth covering the defendant’s table, are louder than a stun belt and visible if the defendant must get up in front of the jurors. If they didn’t use the stun belt, they might have needed more guards, which would create an impression the defendant was dangerous, wrote the judge.  

Because Stephenson didn’t challenge the stun belt on direct appeal but only alleges his counsel was ineffective by not challenging the stun belt, Stephenson must show he was prejudiced by his attorney’s error. The jurors’ affidavits don’t establish any prejudicial effect but merely awareness of the stun belt. Judge Posner wrote that as far as the court can tell, the jurors thought it was routine that a criminal defendant would be physically restrained in some fashion.

“A visible restraint on a defendant might seem a good example of prejudicial material improperly (if there was no adequate reason for the restraint) brought to the jurors’ attention. But to allow jurors to be interrogated about such observations would mean that in any trial in which a physically restrained defendant was convicted, the defendant could challenge the verdict by obtaining affidavits from jurors concerning what they thought – even if the reasons for the restraint had been compelling,” wrote Judge Posner.

The court doubted that stun belts or more guards would have influenced this particular jury’s verdict. The multiple-murder trial and suggestion of the death penalty created an expectation of heightened security whether Stephenson was guilty or not. They also found it difficult to believe that the jurors who guessed he was wearing a stun belt would think it was a clue to his likely guilt as compared to the evidence generated during the eight-month trial.

Stephenson failed “to carry his burden of proving prejudice, even on the dubious premise that his counsel should have objected to the stun belt – dubious because the alternatives might have been worse,” wrote Judge Posner.

The 7th Circuit has held that without a reference to the doctrine of residual doubt, a defendant’s counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by not objecting at the penalty phase of a capital case to the defendant being shackled. The judges remanded the question of prejudice from Stephenson’s having to wear the stun belt at the penalty hearing to the District Court for further consideration.
 

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