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Seventh Circuit Vacates Death Sentence Because Stun Belt Worn by Defendant Contaminated Penalty Phase

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated a death sentence, finding that requiring the defendant to wear a stun belt at trial contaminated the penalty phase.

In March 1996, John M. Stephenson was charged with murdering three people in Indiana. The case eventually proceeded to a jury trial. The jury foreman was acquainted with one victim’s sister. Two jurors overheard two other jurors discussing Stephenson being in a bar fight before the murders.

Stephenson was ultimately convicted, following an eight-month trial. The jury then recommended that Stephenson be sentenced to death, after a one-day penalty phase. Five weeks later, the trial court adopted that recommendation.

Stephenson had never been disruptive or done anything inappropriate during the trial. Nevertheless, he was required to wear a stun belt throughout both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial.

The stun belt’s manual boasts that its “psychological impact ... becomes a predominant factor of and for optimum control.” The manual also instructs against attempting to hide the belt from view because it “is of significant bulk so as not to remain undetected if worn beneath clothing.” Stephenson’s stun belt was visible, and at least four jurors were aware that he was wearing it.

In 2001, the Indiana Supreme Court barred the future use of stun belts in Indiana courtrooms, noting “that a stun belt can compromise a defendant’s participation in a trial because it ‘relies on the continuous fear of what might happen if the belt is activated for its effectiveness.’” Wrinkles v. State, 749 N.E.2d 1179 (Ind. 2001). Even so, Indiana courts affirmed Stephenson’s convictions and death sentence.

A federal court later vacated Stephenson’s convictions and death sentence. The court found that trial counsel’s failure to object to the stun belt requirement constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for reconsideration of whether Stephenson was prejudiced by the stun belt.

On remand, the district court found that Stephenson had not been prejudiced because the jury had already decided during the guilt phase that he murdered three people and was, therefore, a dangerous person.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed and vacated Stephenson’s death sentence. Finding that there was “no evidence that the defendant was at all likely to act up at the penalty phase,” the Court held that reversal was required because of “the possibility that the defendant’s having to wear the stun belt ... contaminated the penalty phase of the trial.”

The Court instructed that “Indiana may choose to seek the death penalty anew and hold a new penalty hearing before a jury without Stephenson wearing the stun belt, or to seek a lesser sentence.” See: Stephenson v. Neal, 865 F.3d 956 (7th Cir. 2017). 


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