Death Sentence Overturned Because Defendant Wore Stun Belt in Court

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Stephenson v. Neal, 2017 WL 3319296 (7th Cir. 2017)

John Stephenson was convicted of killing three people in 1996. Though the trial lasted eight months, the jury only took one day to recommend the death penalty. During the penalty hearing, Stephenson wore an electronic restraint (stun belt) under his clothing. Several jurors later stated they were aware of the bulky belt.

Stephenson petitioned for habeas corpus relief from the federal court. He alleged that his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the stun belt. A federal trial court ruled that Stephenson had not been prejudiced by wearing the stun belt. The court opined that even if jurors observed the belt during the penalty phase, the jury could already conclude that Stephenson, having murdered three people, was a dangerous person. Stephenson appealed.

The court of appeals ordered a new penalty hearing for Stephenson. The court held there were no findings on record to show that Stephenson was likely to misbehave in court. The court also held there was no way to determine what impact the belt had on those jurors who saw it, or what they told other jurors about the belt.

Lexipol’s Electronic Restraints Policy (available in the Lexipol Custody manual) provides that officers obtain prior judicial approval for the use of an electronic restraint device in a courtroom. The policy also prescribes that the judge be given an overview of the device operation. Prosecutors should be attuned to governing appellate court decisions requiring that the trial judge is informed of facts supporting the use of an electronic restraint device in court, particularly when it may be visible to jurors. That wasn’t done in Stephenson’s case and now he is headed back to court for a new sentencing hearing, 21 years after the murders.

Lexipol Law Enforcement

CHIEF KEN WALLENTINE is a Special Agent who directs the Utah Attorney General Training Center, overseeing use of force training and investigation and cold case homicide investigations. He is also a consultant and Senior Legal Advisor for Lexipol. Ken formerly served as Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, serving over three decades in public safety before a brief retirement. He also serves as the Chairman of the Peace Officer Merit Commission of Greater Salt Lake County.