ILNews

U.S. judge: Indiana Supreme Court was wrong

Back to TopE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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."

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Indiana State Bar Association

Indianapolis Bar Association

Evansville Bar Association

Allen County Bar Association

Indiana Lawyer on Facebook

facebook
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

  2. Being dedicated to a genre keeps it alive until the masses catch up to the "trend." Kent and Bill are keepin' it LIVE!! Thank you gentlemen..you know your JAZZ.

  3. Hemp has very little THC which is needed to kill cancer cells! Growing cannabis plants for THC inside a hemp field will not work...where is the fear? From not really knowing about Cannabis and Hemp or just not listening to the people teaching you through testimonies and packets of info over the last few years! Wake up Hoosier law makers!

  4. If our State Government would sue for their rights to grow HEMP like Kentucky did we would not have these issues. AND for your INFORMATION many medical items are also made from HEMP. FOOD, FUEL,FIBER,TEXTILES and MEDICINE are all uses for this plant. South Bend was built on Hemp. Our states antiquated fear of cannabis is embarrassing on the world stage. We really need to lead the way rather than follow. Some day.. we will have freedom in Indiana. And I for one will continue to educate the good folks of this state to the beauty and wonder of this magnificent plant.

  5. Put aside all the marijuana concerns, we are talking about food and fiber uses here. The federal impediments to hemp cultivation are totally ridiculous. Preposterous. Biggest hemp cultivators are China and Europe. We get most of ours from Canada. Hemp is as versatile as any crop ever including corn and soy. It's good the governor laid the way for this, regrettable the buffoons in DC stand in the way. A statutory relic of the failed "war on drugs"

ADVERTISEMENT