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SCOTUS asked to take Indiana stun belt case

March 30, 2011

The Supreme Court of the United States is being asked to consider an Indiana case about a convicted murderer’s claim that he was improperly restrained with a stun belt during his trial and that led to a wrongful conviction.

On March 21, the nation’s highest court received a writ of certiorari in the case of John M. Stephenson v. Bill Wilson, superintendent of Indiana State Prison, No. 09-2924, which follows an August 2010 decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Theresa Springmann in the Northern District of Indiana that John Stephenson received ineffective assistance of counsel for not raising the stun belt argument.

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 an unsuccessful direct appeal to the SCOTUS, Stephenson filed a writ of federal habeas corpus and Judge Springmann in 2009 tossed out his capital sentence on the stun belt claim, but didn’t rule on other issues he raised.

The 7th Circuit last year ordered the District judge to reconsider her ruling, finding that the question of prejudice from the stun belt at the penalty hearing requires more consideration. Stephenson filed a petition for rehearing but the appellate court was divided on whether to rehear the case and ultimately denied that request.

Though Stephenson is entitled to a new trial already as Judge Springmann concluded based on the penalty phase aspects, Stephenson and his attorneys are raising the stun belt issues before the SCOTUS.

The cert petition raises three questions:
•    Whether SCOTUS precedent from 1986 and 2005 still applies or whether a federal court is able to assume that a jury’s awareness of the restraint had no effect on the verdict unless the defendant can produce actual evidence of prejudice?
•    Whether the panel’s determination that trial counsel’s vigorous defense precluded any possibility of any prejudice and meets the prejudice prong of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 688 (1984)?
•    Is there a reasonable probability Stephenson wouldn’t be convicted on the evidence if not for the jurors’ awareness of the stun belt being worn at trial?

Defense attorneys are asking that both Stephenson’s convictions and death sentence be vacated.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has until April 18 to submit a reply brief, according to spokesman Bryan Corbin.

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