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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit reverses stun gun decision

In Stephenson v. Wilson (ND Ind., Springmann), a 20-page opinion, Judge Posner writes:

In 1997 a jury in an Indiana state court convicted petitioner Stephenson of three murders. The judge sentenced him to death. After exhausting his state remedies, see Stephenson v. State, 742 N.E.2d 463 (Ind. 2001) (affirming his conviction and sentence), and 864 N.E.2d 1022 (Ind. 2007) (affirming denial of post-conviction relief), he sought a writ of federal habeas corpus. The district judge ruled that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel during both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial (and so she vacated both the conviction and the sentence), because his counsel had failed to object to the state’s making him wear a stun belt in the courtroom. In affidavits and a deposition introduced in the state postconviction proceedings, four jurors said they were aware that he was wearing a stun belt.

Stephenson argued other grounds for relief as well, but the district judge didn’t rule on any of them. That may have been a mistake, considering how protracted capital cases are. It means that if we reject the ground on which the court did rule, we must reverse and remand for consideration of the other grounds, while if those grounds for relief had been before us we might have agreed with one of them and thereby spared the parties a further proceeding in the district court, possibly followed by a further appeal. * * *

Had Stephenson challenged the stun belt on direct appeal, the state would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the stun belt had not influenced the verdict. Hatten v. Quarterman, supra, 570 F.3d at 603- 04. But because he alleges only that his counsel was ineffective in failing to challenge the stun belt, he must show that he was prejudiced by counsel’s error. And the burden of proving prejudice is on him, because to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance a defendant must show not only that counsel’s performance fell below minimum professional standards but also that the subpar performance harmed the client. * * *

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. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Here are earlier ILB stun-belt entries, not only relating to this case, but to the Wrinkles case.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 26, 2010 12:19 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions