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U.S. judge: Indiana Supreme Court was wrong

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A federal judge has tossed a death row inmate's capital sentence, saying the Indiana Supreme Court was wrong in ruling the man convicted of a triple murder wasn't prejudiced by having to wear a stun belt in the jury's presence.

The 26-page decision came Wednesday from the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana, in John M. Stephenson v. Mark Levenhagen, No. 3:07-CV-539-TS, a case that's been ongoing with appeals in some form for more than a decade. This case has seen all levels of state and federal courts, though the Supreme Court of the United States has twice declined to intervene.

U.S. District Judge Theresa Springmann in Fort Wayne ruled the Indiana Supreme Court's decision in April 2007 was incorrect in holding that Stephenson wasn't prejudiced by his wearing a stun belt during his eight-month capital trial in 1997 in Warrick Superior Court, where he was convicted of three murders, burglary, and theft relating to a drug-ring operation.

Two published opinions come from the state's highest court in this case, all relating to Stephenson's convictions. The first was Stephenson v. State of Indiana, 742 N.E. 2d 463 (Ind. 2001), or Stephenson I, which affirmed the convictions and penalty on direct appeal; and Stephenson v. State of Indiana, 864 N.E. 2d 1022 (Ind. 2007), or Stephenson II, a post-conviction relief appeal challenging several issues including how Stephenson was forced to wear a stun belt during his capital jury trial. That latter ruling denied him relief and again upheld his sentence to die, and all five justices affirmed that penalty.

On the post-conviction relief claim, the Indiana Supreme Court had found that Stephenson's trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the belt's use during trial. But it held that Stephenson wasn't prejudiced by that deficient performance, and Judge Springmann says that was incorrect. Specifically, the justices found no evidence that the sheriff or anyone requested the stun belt's use, and that Stephenson had not presented a danger or security threat; but it still determined there was no prejudicial effect from jurors seeing that during trial.

"It is clearly erroneous because if counsel had objected, there was no legitimate basis for requiring Stephenson to wear a stun belt," Judge Springmann wrote. "Furthermore, if over objection, he had been required to do so, the Indiana Supreme Court would have had to reverse his conviction on direct appeal. It is an incorrect statement of the test for prejudice because the question is not whether the objection would have been sustained or resulted in a reversal on direct appeal."

The judge applied recent caselaw from the 7th Circuit, which last year decided Wrinkles v. Buss, 537 F. 3d 804, 823 (7th Cir. 2008), that came from Judge John D. Tinder, then in the Southern District of Indiana. He had decided that Vanderburgh County case involving in part an ineffective assistance of counsel claim pertaining to a lawyer's failure to object to the use of a stun-belt restraint during trial. The federal appellate court affirmed the decision about its use because there was a question of its visibility during trial - something that isn't an issue in Stephenson because jurors could see the stun belt. But the ruling offered relevant framework for deciding this current appeal.

"Stephenson has demonstrated that there was an unacceptable risk that impermissible factors came into play in the determination of his guilt," Judge Springmann wrote. "Therefore, he has demonstrated prejudice ... and habeas corpus must be granted. Due process mandates that John M. Stephenson is entitled to what he was denied: a trial without restraints unless the State can demonstrate a particularized justification for doing so at his retrial."

The federal judge granted Stephenson's motion for summary judgment on his stun-belt claim in the petition for writ of habeas corpus. Indiana has 120 days to file the appropriate papers to continue this case and is free to again seek the death penalty, Judge Springmann wrote.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller called the ruling "disappointing," and said a decision hasn't been made about whether to ask Judge Springmann to rehear the case or to appeal directly to the 7th Circuit.

"Stephenson was cloaked with the presumption of innocence and his wearing an electric stun belt under his clothes did not strip him of that cloak," Zoeller said. "This ruling makes it more difficult to serve the interests of justice if witnesses must testify again about events 13 years after the fact."

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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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