The Supreme Court ruled Monday that murder defendants cannot be forced to appear in shackles and chains when a jury is deciding whether they should be sentenced to death or life in prison, reports USA Today. By a 7-2 vote, the court said the constitutional guarantee of due process forbids the use of visible shackles unless the judge determines that there are “special circumstances” to justify the restraints, such as a concern that the defendant might escape.
“The appearance of the offender during the penalty phase in shackles … almost inevitably implies to a jury … that court authorities consider the offender a danger to the community,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority in the case of a Missouri man who was convicted of murdering an elderly couple. “It almost inevitably affects adversely the jury’s perception of the character of the defendant.” The case involved Carman Deck, convicted of killing an elderly couple in 1996. During a sentencing hearing, Deck was shackled with leg irons, handcuffs and a belly chain. His lawyer objected, the trial judge overruled the objections, and the Missouri high court rejected an appeal. But the Supreme Court noted that the law has long forbidden the routine use of visible shackles during the guilt-or-innocence phase of a case. Breyer traced that prohibition to 18th-century notions that shackles were a form of torture. In the modern era, he said, courts had forbidden such visible restraints based on a concern that it signaled a need to separate a defendant from the community.