ILNews

Justices rule on death penalty case involving stun belt use at trial

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Supreme Court today affirmed the convictions and post-conviction relief denial for a death row inmate convicted of murdering three people in Evansville in 1996.

The 43-page ruling in Stephenson v. State, No 87S00-0106-PD-285 (http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/04260701trb.pdf), affirms the post-conviction court ;s denial of relief for John Matthew Stephenson, who is sentenced to die for the 1997 convictions of burglary, theft, and the murders of John "Jay" Tyler, his wife, Kathy Tyler, and Brandy Southard relating to a drug-ring operation. He was sentenced to death after an eight-month capital trial.

Justices had affirmed the convictions and the death sentence in 2001, but now the court is dealing with how Stephenson was forced to wear a stun belt in the jury ;s presence. Trial counsel made no objection, and the record doesn ;t refer to the belt. However, Stephenson alleged it was a structural and fundamental error and counsel was ineffective for failing to object.

In the opinion authored by Justice Ted Boehm, justices unanimously held that Stephenson ;s trial and appellate counsel was not ineffective, that claims of prejudicial treatment were not valid, and that his due process and fair trial rights were not violated.

While the court holds that the stun-belt use – or "appearing in readily visible restraints" – is inherently prejudicial, it dismisses the claim because Stephenson did not raise the issue on direct appeal and therefore can ;t raise it in post-conviction proceedings.

On the ineffective assistance claims, the court wrote that Stephenson failed to establish reasonable probability that any such objection on the stun belt use would have prevailed or that the guilt or penalty phases would have changed.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote a single page concurring opinion, and was joined by Justice Brent E. Dickson, saying, "A few words about the rhetoric of modern death penalty litigation as regards the most common single issue – effective assistance of trial counsel."

"The contention now before us is that the foregoing defense was ‘perfunctory. ; It is declared ‘woefully short, ; ‘laughable, ; a defense conducted by lawyers who are ‘willfully uninformed, ;" the chief justice wrote. "The facts establish otherwise: a seasoned defense team of respected practitioners, aided by a collection of experts and investigators, mounting a defense with the benefit of vast financial resources. Well beyond any notion of what the Sixth Amendment guarantees."

Stephenson also raised a variety of other claims involving ineffective assistance, that jurors were exposed to extraneous influences, new evidence undermines confidence in his convictions and sentence, and the state suppressed evidence material to his guilt or punishment The court denied those claims, including one about a juror being influenced by a crime novel he was reading.

One juror read murder mystery novels at breaks throughout the trial, and the court holds "these novels were completely unrelated to Stephenson ;s trial. We are given no basis to conclude that they would affect a juror ;s impartiality."
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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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