Abusive Judges Are Electrocuting Defendants in Several States July 29, 2019

Vests, belts, and wrist and ankle cuffs capable of delivering an extended shock up to 50,000 volts have been used in at least 30 states. The Marshall Project reports that judges in several recent cases were found to have abused the devices in court.

Stun belts and other electronic restraints were first introduced in the early 1990s. People who have been shocked by them say they cause "excruciating pain as if a long needle had been inserted" into the spine and skull.

Research shows that 50,000 volts of electricity can impair brain function for up to an hour and can even trigger cardiac arrest.

Defendants have a constitutional right to be present at all critical stages of their trial. The Marshall Project reports, however, that some defendants have been too scared to return to the courtroom after being shocked or have missed participating in their trial while recovering from being shocked.

There is no uniform policy for the use of electronic restraint devices, the report observes.

Last year, a Texas appeals court emphasized that "the potential for abuse in the absence of an explicit prohibition on non-security use of stun belts exists and must be deterred."

The court reprimanded a trial judge for "barbarism" and granted the defendant a new trial after the judge "ordered his bailiff to electrocute the defandant three times with a stun belt—not for legitimate security purposes, but solely as a show of the court's power as the defendant asked the court to stop 'torturing' him." 

The court wrote in summary:

We do not believe that trial judges can use stun belts to enforce decorum. A stun belt is a device meant to ensure physical safety; it is not an operant conditioning collar meant to punish a defendant until he obeys a judge’s whim. This Court cannot sit idly by and say nothing when a judge turns a court of law into a Skinner Box, electrocuting a defendant until he provides the judge with behavior he likes. Such conduct has no place in this State’s courts. 

The Maryland Court of Appeals banned a trial judge from sitting on the bench after he ordered a deputy to shock a defendant who was arguing a point with the judge.

The defendant fell to the ground, screaming. The judge left the bench for a recess while the man continued to writhe on the floor and scream in pain.

In 2016, the former judge was sentenced to a year's probation after pleading guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of violating the defendant's civil rights.

A federal appeals court found in 2001 that wearing a stun has a "chilling effect" that deters defendants from participating in their own defense.

The court noted that the boundary "between aggressive advocacy and a breach of order" is "inherently difficult to define," and found that defendants might refrain from the former out of fear of "being subjected to the pain of a 50,000 volt jolt of electricity" should their conduct cross the line. Id. Indeed, the psychological toll exacted by such constant fear is one of the selling points made by the manufacturer of the belt. 

Courts have also recognized that stun belts may improperly prejudice jurors against a defendant. 

In 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated a death sentence for an Indiana man who was forced to wear a stun belt at the penalty phase of his capital trial—even though he had no history of acting up in the courtroom. 

The court observed that the box on the defendant's belt was under his shirt but visible to jurors as a bulge. 

Yet seeing the bulge and recognizing it as the action part of a stun belt the jurors may have thought it evidence that Stephenson was violent and unpredictable—evidence confirming the jury’s decision to convict and encouraging it to sentence such a person, already found to be a murderer, to death. It’s also possible that wearing the stun belt affected Stephenson’s demeanor and appearance throughout the trial—made him nervous and fearful, which jurors might interpret incorrectly as signs of guilt.

The Indiana Supreme Court later banned the future use of stun belts in the state's 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."

Moreover, experts told the Marshall Project, when a defendant is shocked, causing screams and involuntary movements, he is likely to seem more dangerous to jurors. 

The European Trade Commission, the United Nations, and Amnesty International have all called for the ban of electronic restraints, the Marshall Project reports.

Yet the use of stun belts and cuffs remains up to judges and court officers in most jurisdictions today.