7th Circuit orders new sentencing hearing for man on death row

August 4, 2017

A man convicted in a triple homicide and subsequently sentenced to death will get a new sentencing hearing after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined Friday the fact he was wearing a stun belt during the penalty phase of his trial may have impacted his jury.

In 1996, John Stephenson was charged in Indiana with the murders of three people riding in a truck and related crimes, including theft of ammunition for the type of rifle used in the murder. The ammunition was stolen from one of the victim’s trailer, and spent shell casings found at the murder site also matched those taken from the trailer.

After an eight-month trial, Stephenson was convicted and sentenced to death. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed that sentence and the denial of post-conviction relief, leading Stephenson to seek federal habeas relief in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.

Stephenson prevailed on that motion, with the judge determining he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel when his attorney failed to object to his being forced to wear a stun belt in the courtroom. The district court vacated Stephenson’s conviction and sentence, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, determining that “the question of prejudice from Stephenson’s having been required to wear the stun belt at the penalty hearing will require the further consideration of the district court on remand.”

On remand, the district judge determined Stephenson was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to object to him wearing the stun belt during the penalty phase, so he appealed again in John M. Stephenson v. Ron Neal, 16-1312.

 In a Friday opinion, Judge Richard Posner wrote evidence existed that might have convinced a jury to acquit, such as testimony that another man, Brian Mossberger, had left his home on the night of the murders to chase a truck and had returned claiming he had “got them.” But such evidence suffers from contradictions and credibility issues, Posner wrote, so it fails to establish Stephenson’s innocence.  

Stephenson further argued that he was denied an impartial jury due to the fact that the foreman knew one of the victim’s sisters and that two other jurors had been discussing Stephenson’s participation in a prior bar fight. But considering that the jury was given eight months’ worth of evidence, there is no reason to overturn the Indiana Supreme Court’s determination that Stephenson was not prejudiced at the guilt phase, Posner wrote.

However, Posner went on to write that the jurors’ ability to see the stun belt during the penalty phase could have been construed as evidence that he was violent and worthy of the death penalty. Thus, the 7th Circuit reversed the denial of Stephenson’s petition for habeas corpus and remanded the case with directions to vacate his sentence. The state may choose to once again seek the death penalty and hold a new penalty hearing without the stun belt, or seek a lesser sentence and hold the hearing before a judge.


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