Judges have to balance competing interests
In the Constitutional quest to give every defendant in a criminal case a fair trial before a jury of their peers, one of the balancing acts that a trial court has to perform in some cases is to weigh and balance the concern for the appearance of fairness and the concern for safety and security in the courtroom.
Just this month our Court of Appeals decided the case of State v. Young, where Mr. Young was convicted by a jury of armed robbery and armed criminal action and sentenced to a total of 70 years in prison.
His attorneys appealed his conviction based in part upon the judge ordering that he be shackled – handcuffs, ankle shackles, and belly restraints – in the courtroom during his jury trial. He was, however, in street clothes, and not jail attire, but all of the chains and restraints were clearly visible to the jury in court.
During voir dire, the jury selection process whereby potential jurors are questioned by the attorneys to determine their ability and inclination to serve as fair and impartial jurors, jury panel members made mention of the inconsistency of an instruction that the defendant is presumed innocent, yet he is restrained with very visible chains and shackles in the courtroom.
Defense counsel tried to negate as much as possible the effect of his client’s appearance by asking potential jurors “if you’re selected for the jury, and the judge instructs you that despite the way my client looks, including his shackles, that you have to presume that he is innocent today, do you feel that you could follow that instruction?”
All of the potential jurors who expressed concern agreed that they could.
And, in an attempt to negate as much as possible concerns about fairness to the defendant, the trial judge instructed the jury panel: “I asked that he be restrained. It doesn’t have anything to do with the state being afraid of Mr. Young or his lawyer or the bailiffs or anybody else. This was entirely my decision to do that.”
After trial, Mr. Young’s attorneys appealed his conviction, claiming in part that he was denied a fair trial due to being visibly shackled in court in front of the jury.
The Court of Appeals noted in its opinion a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Missouri decided in 2005 that courts “cannot routinely place defendants in shackles or other physical restraints visible to the jury. ... The constitutional requirement, however, is not absolute. It permits a judge, in the exercise of his or her discretion, to take account of special circumstances, including security concerns, that may call for shackling, [it being] undisputed that a defendant has the right to appear before a jury unfettered unless good cause is shown.”
And while Mr. Young is entitled to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial before an impartial jury, the record reflected that he had engaged in inappropriate outbursts and misconduct in prior court proceedings, was charged with serious violent felony offenses, had a criminal history before this case, and had threatened harm to one of his attorneys.
His robbery victim also happened to be a female attorney with the local prosecutor’s office, whom he was charged with robbing of cash and her wedding ring at knifepoint in an elevator.
That probably didn’t help.
The Court of Appeals, in affirming Mr. Young’s conviction, noted that first, his defense counsel at trial did not properly object so as to preserve the issue for appeal, but went on to state that in this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering the shackles in court.
And so after much scrutiny of how the competing concerns for courtroom security and fairness to the defendant were dealt with in this case, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in proceeding with the trial as it did.
And off to prison went Mr. Young.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.