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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. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  2. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  3. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  4. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  5. I totally agree with John Smith.

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