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 (, 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. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.