The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided an interesting case involving the use of a ‘stun belt' during the penalty phase of a murder trial. In Stephenson v. Neal, the court determined that the use of this device was not appropriate and the defendant was entitled to a new penalty phase because of it.
According to the court, “[a] stun belt is a belt used to restrain prisoners, often in courtrooms where a prisoner who acts up can frighten and even injure jurors, the lawyers, and spectators.” To prevent the prisoner from harming anyone or disrupting the proceedings, “an officer is authorized to send an electric shock to a box on the stun belt that contains electrical wires.” This shock, as the court puts it, “disables the prisoner from acting up.” Stephenson never acted up, so he did not receive any shocks during the trial or during the penalty phase.
The reason that Stephenson took issue with the stun belt was that “[t]he box on [his] belt was on his back under his shirt yet visible to the jurors as a bulge.” Stephenson argued ineffective assistance of counsel on appeal, contending that his attorney should have objected to his having to wear the stun belt.
It came out during post-conviction proceedings at the state level that four jurors were aware that Stephenson was wearing a stun belt. The appellate court determined that because the jurors could see the bulge and knew it was the “action part of a stun belt,” they may have thought of this as “evidence that Stephenson was violent and unpredictable – confirming [their] decision to convict and encouraging [them] to sentence such a person, already found to be a murderer, to death.” The court also stated that wearing this belt could have “affected Stephenson's demeanor and appearance throughout the trial – made him nervous and fearful, which jurors might interpret incorrectly as signs of guilt.”
The court pointed out that there was no evidence that Stephenson was “likely to act up at the penalty phase of his trial, or at any other phase.” It noted that the defendant had been in prison for twenty years and there was no indication he had been violent during that time. The court stated, “Yet we know that four jurors were aware of the stun belt, and do not know what if anything they told the other jurors and therefore what role discovery of the stun belt may have played in the jury's determination to sentence him to death.”
The government had argued that “Stephenson can't have been prejudiced by the stun belt, because the most important factor in sentencing is the crime itself.” The court was not persuaded by this argument in this case, finding the fact that the penalty phase was only a day “gave salience to the stun [belt's] potential negative effect on the jury's assessment of Stephenson's character and may thus have influenced the jury's voting to sentence him to death.”
Thus, the Seventh Circuit found that Stephenson's lawyer should have objected “to his client's having to wear a stun belt, giving the absence of any reason to think his client would go berserk in the courtroom.” The court found that in Stephenson's case, the wearing of the stun belt “contaminated the penalty phase of the trial” and the court then reversed the lower court and remanded the case “with directions to vacate his sentence.”