If you were sitting on a jury during a murder trial, would the defendant’s demeanor influence your ultimate verdict? For most people, that answer is an ardent yes. When we look at some of the biggest trials of our times, the courtroom behavior of the defendants is always newsworthy. During the Casey Anthony trial, her demeanor was mentioned over and over as “too lighthearted.” We also see this currently with the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, where his emotional reaction to the prosecution caused numerous uproars on Twitter.
So imagine how their demeanor might have shifted had we strapped a belt around their waist capable of administering a 50,000 volt shock for 8 seconds at a time. An officer with the remote control, sitting just feet away from the defendant, has the power to electrocute a prisoner with a shock so powerful recipients are thrown to the floor and often lose control of their bowels. Juries are not informed that defendants are wearing such devices under their clothes, and remain unaware of how wearing such a device might alter the defendant’s behavior. Is that a fair trial?
Recently, the California Supreme Court has decided that it does not impact defendant behavior. Despite Amnesty International branding the REACT Belt (Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology) as a torture device, The Supreme Court of California remains assured that it’s really not that big of a deal. In fact, while Amnesty called for their use, manufacture and export to be banned, California Justice Marvin R. Baxter has decided popular reaction to the belt was “ludicrous.”
The decision was handed down over a murder trial that was up for appeal. A man named Jonathan Keith Jackson was convicted of murdering a woman named Monique Cleveland during a drug-related robbery and sentenced to death. Jackson was forced to wear the stun belt during the trial despite no evidence that he was likely of causing disruptions in court. After being sentenced to death, the mandatory appeal went through and California’s Supreme Court who saw zero evidence that there was any “prejudicial error at the guilt or penalty phase of the defendant’s trial.”
Yet Justice Goodwin Liu broke rank and strongly objected to the decision. He wrote, “Here, a man was unlawfully forced to have a 50,000-volt electric shock device strapped around his waist while a jury sat in judgment as to whether he should live or die for his crimes…Most people, with such a device strapped around the waist, would sit as still and impassively as they possibly could in order to avoid activating it. (I would hesitate to even sneeze.)”
In Amnesty International’s report on the use of stun belts, they interviewed those in law enforcement who had felt the shock of these belts during training procedures. They described it as, “You had nine-inch nails and you tried to rip my sides out and then you put a heat lamp on me” and “it felt like every muscle in my body short-circuited at the same time.” The report further goes on to state that, “Victims commonly fall to the ground in pain, and sometimes lose consciousness and lose control of bodily functions, including urination and defecation.”
Accidental discharges of these belts have been known to occur, and can lead to major health complications in those with heart conditions or compromised immune systems. Furthermore, some judges have been known for ordering shocks when defendants are of no physical threat to them.
During a robbery trial in California, Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani first threatened the defendant, Ronnie Hawkins, with the stun belt when he interrupted her. Hawkins was of no threat to her at the time, as he was shackled in his seat. But as he contested her right to do so and brought up a constitutional issue in her court, she ordered his electrocution. When asked for a reason, she simply replied, “You refused to obey my order to stop interrupting me.” Such abuses of power will likely continue as long as these belts are in use.
The idea of a defendant being thrown to the ground and losing control of their bodily functions in court is a fact stun-belt wearers have to contend with, while sitting in judgment of their peers. In the United States, regardless of how heinous the crime may be, we do operate under the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. This has been an important factor in the foundation of our justice system. Forcing defendants to wear stun belts before the point of ‘proven guilty’ will continue to impede the proper function of the system as a whole.