Stephenson v. Neal, No. 16-1312 (7th Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
Stephenson was convicted, in Indiana, of the 1996 murders of three people and of theft of ammunition from the trailer in which one victim was staying. Shell casings at the murder scene matched those taken from the trailer. The jury recommended the death penalty, which the judge imposed. Stephenson’s state appeal and petition for postconviction relief were unsuccessful. A federal judge ruled that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel because his counsel had failed to object to Stephenson having to wear a stun belt in the courtroom. The Seventh Circuit remanded. The district judge then ruled that Stephenson had not been prejudiced by his lawyer’s failure to object to his having to wear a stun belt visible to jurors in the penalty phase because the jury had already decided that Stephenson was dangerous. The Seventh Circuit affirmed with respect to guilt. Taken together, the evidence old and new, “rife with inconsistencies,” fails to establish Stephenson’s innocence. Stephenson was not prejudiced at the guilt phase by the jury foreman’s acquaintance with the sister of a victim, or two jurors’ discussion of Stephenson’s participation in a bar fight before the murders. The Seventh Circuit reversed with respect to the guilt phase, noting that the Indiana Supreme Court has barred the future use of stun belts in courtrooms, which can compromise a defendant’s participation at trial because it relies on continuous fear. It is possible that Stephenson’s having to wear the stun belt—for no reason, given that he had no history of acting up in a courtroom—contaminated the penalty phase.