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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