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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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