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Another Defendant Forced to Wear Handcuffs in Front of the Jury

Another Defendant Forced to Wear Handcuffs in Front of the Jury
Axelrod & Associates, P.A.

Several appellate opinions this year have involved defendants who were forced to wear handcuffs, shackles, or prison jumpsuits in front of jurors at their trials.

In the last case we blogged about, the SC Supreme Court noted that handcuffs in front of the jury are inherently prejudicial, meaning the defendant does not have to prove prejudice (that the error affected the outcome) for the appellate court to reverse their conviction.

They then went on to explain that they will not reverse a conviction unless there is prejudice, and affirmed the conviction…

In Ryals v. State and Reese v. State, there was no discussion of inherent prejudice at all, but the convictions were reversed because the Court found that there was prejudice (the evidence was not overwhelming and the handcuffs/ shackles may have affected the outcome).

What’s the difference?

Handcuffs in Front of the Jury… on Direct Appeal

On direct appeal – when the defendant appeals an error of law committed by the judge, the standard, set by the SC Supreme Court in Heyward, is:

  1. Handcuffs (or shackles or prison garb) are inherently prejudicial – the court must state why they are allowing it and must take care to conceal it from jurors, and the defendant does not need to prove that there was resulting prejudice; but
  2. If there is no resulting prejudice, the Court will not reverse the conviction because it is harmless error (which contradicts #1).

Handcuffs in Front of the Jury… on PCR

In Reese v. State, the defendant was handcuffed in the presence of the jurors, including as she walked from the defense table to the witness stand for her testimony.

Unlike Heyward, where the defense attorney objected and the issue was raised on direct appeal, Reese’s attorney did not object to the handcuffs, so she could not raise the issue on direct appeal.

Instead, Reese filed a post-conviction relief (PCR) action alleging that her trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to object to the handcuffs, which were visible to the jurors at a minimum as she walked across the courtroom to take the witness stand and which her codefendant’s counsel pointed out during opening statement.

Post-Conviction Relief (PCR)

On PCR, the trial court denied relief. The SC Court of Appeals, however, reversed, granting a new trial because:

  1. Reese’s attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the handcuffs, and
  2. Reese proved that there was a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different but for the attorney’s mistake.

This is different from the confusing and contradictory standard articulated by the SC Supreme Court in Heyward because the Reese court is deciding a PCR claim instead of a direct appeal, using the legal standard set forth by the US Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington for ineffective assistance of counsel claims:

“A PCR applicant bears the burden of establishing he is entitled to relief.” Terry v. State, 394 S.C. 62, 66, 714 S.E.2d 326, 329 (2011).7 “To prove counsel was ineffective, the applicant must show counsel’s performance was deficient and the deficient performance caused prejudice to the applicant’s case.” Id. “To prove trial counsel’s performance was deficient, an applicant must show ‘counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'” Smalls, 422 S.C. at 181, 810 S.E.2d at 840 (quoting Williams v. State, 363 S.C. 341, 343, 611 S.E.2d 232, 233 (2005)). “To show prejudice, the applicant must show that, but for counsel’s errors, there is a reasonable probability the result of trial would have been different.

Although the courts often frame the issue in terms of whether there was overwhelming evidence against the defendant, and that is a relevant factor, it is not the legal standard. What is a “reasonable probability that the result of trial would have been different?”

“A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of trial.” Id. “[T]the existence of ‘overwhelming evidence’ does not automatically preclude a finding of prejudice.” Smalls, 422 S.C. at 189, 810 S.E.2d at 844. Rather, in a PCR court’s analysis of prejudice, the strength of the State’s case “is one significant factor the [PCR] court must consider—along with the specific impact of counsel’s error and other relevant considerations—in determining whether [the petitioner] has met his burden of proving prejudice.” Id. at 190, 810 S.E.2d at 845. “[F]or the evidence to be ‘overwhelming’ such that it categorically precludes a  finding of prejudice, . . . the evidence must include something conclusive, such as a confession, DNA evidence demonstrating guilt, or a combination of physical and corroborating evidence so strong that the Strickland standard of ‘a reasonable probability . . . the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt’ cannot possibly be met.” Id. at 191, 810 S.E.2d at 845.

In this case, the Court found that Reese demonstrated prejudice by showing that the evidence against her was not conclusive, reversed the case, and remanded the case for a new trial.

What’s Next for Reese?

Unless the SC Supreme Court reverses the Court of Appeals, Reese has been granted a new trial – she will need to retain an attorney to 1) work on getting her released on bond, 2) re-investigate her case, and 3) prepare for a new trial.

Got Axelrod?

If you have been charged with a crime in SC, if you have been convicted of a crime and need help filing your appeal, if you won an appeal and need help retrying your case, or if you need help with your criminal case, call now at 843-353-3449 or email us online to speak with a criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team today.

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