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SCOTUS asked to take Indiana stun belt case

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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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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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