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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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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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