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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. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

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  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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