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Friday, July 03, 2009

Ind. Decisions - Federal judge throws out stun belt conviction

From an ILB report April 26, 2007 on the Supreme Court opinion in the case of John Stephenson v. State of Indiana, quoting from a story in the Evansville C&P: "Among the nine issues Stephenson's appellate attorneys raised was the fact that some jurors knew that Stephenson was made to wear a stun-belt restraint device during his trial. The supreme court found that was not grounds to reverse Stephenson's conviction or death sentence."

From an Aug. 13, 2008 ILB entry quoting from an AP story by Tom Coyle:

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Tuesday affirmed a ruling by District Judge John Daniel Tinder that Wrinkles could not demonstrate prejudice because the jury was not aware he was wearing the stun belt. * * *

At the time of the trial, Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Richard Young informed Wrinkles he had to wear a shackles or a stun belt because it was the court’s policy. A stun belt is a battery-powered device devices designed to deliver electric shocks to wearers if they become violent.

In 2001, the Indiana Supreme Court banned the use stun belts to restrain defendants in courtrooms, ruling the devices could interfere with a person’s defense. That ruling was the result of the appeal by Wrinkles.

But the high court rejected Wrinkles’ claim that his attorneys were ineffective because they did not object to him being forced to wear the belt. Wrinkles’ trial attorneys chose the device over shackles because they believed it would not be visible to jurors.

Although Wrinkles presented affidavits from three jurors who claimed to have seen the stun belt during the trial, Tinder ruled that Wrinkles did not prove that the belt was visible or that the jury knew about it. The Appeals Court upheld that finding.

Today, from an Evansville Courier & Press story:
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The death sentence and guilty verdict of John Matthew Stephenson, 45, convicted in 1997 of a triple murder in Warrick County, were thrown out by a federal judge Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Theresa Springmann ruled Stephenson did not have effective counsel because his attorney did not object to the defendant having to wear a stun belt in the courtroom, violating his right to presumption of innocence, when he appeared before the jury that convicted him. * * *

Springmann's ruling came in the fourth appeal since Stephenson was condemned to death by lethal injection in June 1997. While awaiting sentencing, Stephenson indicated he welcomed death. * * *

In a previous appeal, Bruce Hargrave, Warrick County's sheriff when the killings occurred, and other law enforcement officers testified: "... That to their knowledge Stephenson posed no security threat and had exhibited no behavior that would demonstrate a specific need for a restraining device at trial." Hargrave declined to comment on Wednesday.

Here is Judge Springmann's 26-page July 1, 2009 opinion in Stephenson v. Levenhagen. The opinion concludes:
Stephenson has demonstrated that there was an unacceptable risk that impermissible factors came into play in the determination of his guilt. Therefore, he has demonstrated prejudice under both the Holbrook and Strickland standards, 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. Therefore, habeas corpus relief must be conditionally granted. “Conditional writs enable habeas courts to give States time to replace an invalid judgment with a valid one.” Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 87 (2005) (Scalia J., concurring). Thus the State of Indiana is free to re-try John M. Stephenson, providing that it files appropriate documents in the State trial court seeking such relief within 120 days of this Order. If he is re-tried, nothing in this Opinion prevents the State from again seeking the death penalty.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 3, 2009 08:31 AM
Posted to Ind Fed D.Ct. Decisions | Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions | Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions