Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 4, 2014


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Supreme Court Affirms Death Sentence for Defendant Forced to Wear REACT Stun Belt During Trial


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld a death sentence for a man who was forced to wear a stun belt during his trial, rejecting arguments that the prospect of a 50,000-volt electrical shock affect his demeanor before jurors who found him guilty and returned a death penalty verdict.

In a 6-1 decision, the court said the decision to require the belt was error absent a finding of “manifest need,” in a case where the ruling was based primarily on the sheriff’s staffing concerns and not on any actual disruption by the defendant. But the majority also found the error to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defendant Jonathan Keith Jackson, was convicted of murdering Monique Cleveland during an attempted drug-related robbery in Riverside County in 1996 and attempting to murder her husband, Robert Cleveland.

Jurors at Jackson’s first trial found him guilty of first degree murder with a robbery-murder special circumstance, but deadlocked as to penalty. A second trial, limited to penalty, resulted in a death penalty verdict.

Judges at both trials ordered, over defense objection, that Jackson wear the REACT, or Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology, belt. There was little case law at the time regarding the use of the belt, but In People v. Mar (2002) 28 Cal.4th 1201—decided after Jackson was convicted but before his appeal had been briefed—the high court described the belt and its effects:

“[It] consists of a four-inch-wide elastic band, which is worn underneath the prisoner’s clothing. This band wraps around the prisoner’s waist and is secured by a Velcro fastener. The belt is powered by two 9-volt batteries connected to prongs which are attached to the wearer over the left kidney region. . . .

“The stun belt will deliver an eight-second, 50,000-volt electric shock if activated by a remote transmitter which is controlled by an attending officer. The shock contains enough amperage to immobilize a person temporarily and cause muscular weakness for approximately 30 to 45 minutes. The wearer is generally knocked to the ground by the shock and shakes uncontrollably. Activation may also cause immediate and uncontrolled defecation and urination, and the belt’s metal prongs may leave welts on the wearer’s skin requiring as long as six months to heal. An electrical jolt of this magnitude causes temporary debilitating pain and may cause some wearers to suffer heartbeat irregularities or seizures.”

The court held that given those potential effects on a  defendant’s health and mental state, the court could not order the belt worn merely as a matter of convenience, and imposed the manifest-need requirement.

In Jackson’s case, the attorney general conceded on appeal that the manifest-need standard had not been met, but that the error was harmless.

Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the majority, agreed, noting there was no evidence that jurors saw the belt, that the belt was adjusted on several occasions for Jackson’s comfort at his counsel’s request, and that there was no indication that the one critical decision Jackson had to make for himself—not to testify—was related to the fact he was wearing a stun belt.

Justice Goodwin Liu, dissenting as to penalty only, argued that the fear of being shocked may affect a defendant’s demeanor, which can be critical to jurors considering whether to return a death or life-without-parole verdict.

The belt can activate accidentally, and Jackson had feared setting it off, Liu noted.

“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.),” Liu wrote.

Jackson’s impassive demeanor might have contributed to the jury’s decision to recommend death, Liu wrote. The fact that the first jury deadlocked as to penalty suggests that sentencing was a close question, he said.

Baxter said he was “highly dubious” of what he termed speculation by his dissenting colleague.

“There is no indication the belt caused defendant mental anxiety or inhibited his ability to confer with counsel and participate in his defense,” Baxter wrote. “There is, however, evidence that defense counsel viewed defendant’s demeanor as weighing in his favor during the penalty trial.”

Baxter said that Jackson’s claim of being affected psychologically by the belt was “inconsistent with his complete failure to mention the stun belt or its effects in any of his various motions for a mistrial, a new guilt trial, and a new penalty trial.”

Noting that Mar has been applied retroactively, he called yesterday’s ruling “a retreat from the rigorous standards governing the use of stun belts and similar devices.”

Liu joined the rest of the court, however, in affirming the conviction, concluding that Jackson’s demeanor during the trial’s guilt phase “was not relevant to the jury’s determination of the objective facts comprising his crimes.”

The justices unanimously rejected other claims of error, including a challenge to the judge’s decision to admit testimony that Monique Cleveland was one-month pregnant, along with an autopsy photo showing the fetus, during the penalty phase. Baxter said the evidence was relevant and not particularly inflammatory.

The case is People v. Jackson, 14 S.O.S. 1057.


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