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. Paul Ogden doing a fine job of remembering his peer Gary Welsh with the post below and a call for an Indy gettogether to celebrate Gary .... http://www.ogdenonpolitics.com/2016/05/indiana-loses-citizen-journalist-giant.html Castaways of Indiana, unite!

  2. It's unfortunate that someone has attempted to hijack the comments to promote his own business. This is not an article discussing the means of preserving the record; no matter how it's accomplished, ethics and impartiality are paramount concerns. When a party to litigation contracts directly with a reporting firm, it creates, at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Court reporters, attorneys and judges are officers of the court and must abide by court rules as well as state and federal laws. Parties to litigation have no such ethical responsibilities. Would we accept insurance companies contracting with judges? This practice effectively shifts costs to the party who can least afford it while reducing costs for the party with the most resources. The success of our justice system depends on equal access for all, not just for those who have the deepest pockets.

  3. As a licensed court reporter in California, I have to say that I'm sure that at some point we will be replaced by speech recognition. However, from what I've seen of it so far, it's a lot farther away than three years. It doesn't sound like Mr. Hubbard has ever sat in a courtroom or a deposition room where testimony is being given. Not all procedures are the same, and often they become quite heated with the ends of question and beginning of answers overlapping. The human mind can discern the words to a certain extent in those cases, but I doubt very much that a computer can yet. There is also the issue of very heavy accents and mumbling. People speak very fast nowadays, and in order to do that, they generally slur everything together, they drop or swallow words like "the" and "and." Voice recognition might be able to produce some form of a transcript, but I'd be very surprised if it produces an accurate or verbatim transcript, as is required in the legal world.

  4. Really enjoyed the profile. Congratulations to Craig on living the dream, and kudos to the pros who got involved to help him realize the vision.

  5. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

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