Death Sentence Tossed Because Murderer Wore Stun Belt in Court

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By Jessica DaSilva

A death row inmate in Indiana deserves a new sentence because wearing a stun belt during the penalty phase of his triple-murder trial may have negatively influenced jurors, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled ( Stephenson v. Neal , 2017 BL 272634, 7th Cir., No. 16-1312, 8/4/17 ).

The appeals court again upheld John M. Stephenson’s 1996 conviction despite him being made to wear the electronic restraining device during that part of the trial as well, which lasted eight months. But it found he was prejudiced by his lawyer’s failure to object to him being forced to wear it while the punishment phase of the case played out in open court.

“There is no evidence that the defendant was at all likely to act up at the penalty phase of his trial, or at any other phase,” wrote Judge Richard Posner Aug. 4 for the court, which reversed a lower court’s decision to vacate the death sentence.

“He’s been in prison for 20 years now, and there is no suggestion that he has behaved violently during that period, and certainly he has not in any of his subsequent court appearances,” Posner said.

Law enforcement can deliver electric shocks through stun belts to subdue defendants who act up in court. Stephenson didn’t misbehave, nor was he shocked at any point during the trial.

Four jurors said they had been aware of the belt, according to the court summary.

The appeals court said the state had a number of options for handling a new sentencing proceeding, including again seeking the death penalty.

Circuit Judges William J. Bauer and Joel Flaum also sat on the panel. Marie F. Donnelly, Evanston, Ill., and Alan Michael Freedman of the Midwest Center for Justice in Evanston, Ill., represented Stephenson. Kelly A. Loy, Office of the Attorney General in Indianapolis, represented the government.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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