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. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.