Monday, September 30, 2013

Another harmless error: CCA okays shackling drug defendants with a wink and a nod

Fannin County District Judge Laurine Blake erred, said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, when she allowed defendant Vaughn Bell, accused of drug possession, to be shackled in her courtroom during trial without providing any justification except that, "Everybody who is in custody has the same necessity of restraint."

That view is plainly wrong, wrote Judge Keasler in the majority opinion (pdf), as "courts have uniformly imposed an express prohibition on routine shackling, as a defendant should only be shackled 'as a last resort.'"  He concluded that the "trial judge erred in ordering Bell shackled without finding a particularized reason for such action apart from a general concern for courtroom security and the prevention of escape."

As is so often the case, though, when Texas courts flagrantly violate defendants' rights, the CCA found the error harmless because there was no evidence that the jury could see the shackles and chains binding the defendant's legs and hands to the courtroom table. Judge Blake ordered defense counsel to stack briefcases beside the table to block jurors' view of Bell's shackled legs and suggested the problem would be solved if "the defendant will just be mindful about movement of his legs during trial." For eight members of the CCA, that was sufficient.

Keasler granted that:
The judge's statement that '[e]verybody who is in custody has the same necessity of restraint' evinces, at best, a generalized concern for courtroom security and, at worst, a propensity to shackle defendants in custody during trial as a matter of course. Neither suffices: the former is an insufficient reason; the latter a distasteful practice '[reminiscent] of an era when the accused was brought from prison to the courtroom in chains, unkempt and wearing (at best) prison attire, following which he was exposed to a jury in the worst possible light.' Under these circumstances, it was clearly error to order Bell shackled during trial.
But he and seven other CCA judges chose not to apply the standard used by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court in such cases, instead relying on their own Texas rulings that predate the relevant federal precedents.

Judge Meyers dissented (pdf), declaring "I disagree that this error was harmless. Unlawful and uncalled for shackling has a substantial effect on the jury's view of the defendant. The fact that a defendant is shackled without cause gives the jury the perception that he is a much more dangerous criminal and may prevent him from receiving a fair trial." Because the State could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shackling did not contribute to the verdict - the standard under the US Supreme Court's ruling in Deck v. Missouri - he "would hold that the Appellant was harmed by the trial judge's error."

Two issues jump out at Grits on this one: First, who is surprised that the CCA chose to ignore federal precedents in order to sustain Bell's drug conviction? I swear, if this court were a band they'd be named the "Harmless Errors": Those must be their favorite two words (besides, perhaps, "writ denied").

More surprising is that in the 21st century a Texas judge (wrongly) believes it's okay to routinely shackle drug defendants during trial, as Judge Blake apparently would have it. That's a disgraceful stance, the shame of which is not mitigated in the least by the high court's refusal to hold Judge Blake accountable.



Anonymous said...

Guilty by Association & the 3% club -

As a juror that witnesses this tactic, takes the images & sounds back to deliberations and participates in state sanctioned bullying in order to get home, all without actually looking at 'all' of the good & bad evidence, is just as Guilty as those that put on the show.

Judge Blake is a flake and she knows it.

Anonymous said...

Grits, this has been and still is bidness as usual in Harris County, as it simply jumps from century to century. The joke is on the taxpayers and voters that vote just to be voting and I’m beginning to think they deserve it and the Invoices that result from playing along.

Sadly, we all pay for it in one way or another.

Lee said...

Why are nonviolent criminals shackled?

Interesting how if I have an outstanding traffic ticket, I must be handcuffed and shackled but if you give the court the $300.00 then your dangerousness disappears.

Anonymous said...

Commonly referred to as non-reversible errors, experienced judges and prosecutors know these by heart. I've seen as many as a half-dozen during a single trial and while they indeed know these little violations could be cause for a successful appeal, they also know the ruling won't be reversed and the case sent back for retrial. There are a lot of winning prosecutors who are such only because the judge throws in a couple of these small errors in tight cases, otherwise they would be losers and forced to hang a shingle. Many former prosecutors who go it on their own wonder how they could have been such winners when they prosecuted cases yet can't win one for the defense at trial. And the reason is simply that they aren't getting these little edges anymore.

Anonymous said...

MAYBE this Judge is just AFRAID in the court room. Doesn't paint a very good picture of Texas Womanhood. I know some TX gals and they'd just lay their .45 on the bench and 'Bring 'em in.'

Anonymous said...

And your "Maybe" would be flat wrong.

Judges don't sit around chambers shivering and saying okay I want this one and this one to be shackled.

Instead, it's the ADA that has the Bailiff do it in the courtroom holding cell. If the Defendant has a Real CDL, he / she will OBJECT and have it put on the record.

But since there are not that many Real ones to go around, the court utilizes the brown nosing fakers & shakers.

It's a sad day in America, when the public at large can't tell the difference between the ADA & the Defense. It's even sadder when they both win.

Anonymous said...

New Rule – Court rooms are to be retrofitted with doors complete with: Door Knobs & Locks. Doh!

Anonymous said...

If you can escape from a court room & get to a phone to call 911 on yourself or simply stop & get prone once out the door, you should be rewarded for exposing the weak links in what they consider a secure location.

Anonymous said...

If you can escape from a court room & get to a phone to call 911 on yourself, you should be rewarded for exposing the weak links in what they consider a secure location.

Anonymous said...

Grits, would you or anyone for that matter consider being in a jail jump suit while handcuffed to a chair placed in front of the jury panel during voir dire proceedings as an - error? If yes, what type would it fall under when another person you don't know is charged with possession of a controlled substance and you get arrested with him for what turned out to be a fake Outstanding Traffic Warrant?

*I was, and no one seemed to have any problem with it (except for the lady directly in front of me that just shook her head & never stopped looking at the cuffs). I honestly thought it was part of the process as I sat four to six feet from the ladies on the front row. My (what turned out to be a fake) CDL advised me to look straight at them and try to make eye contact with them all (60 plus people). Can you imagine how that initial shock value adds up in the heads of those eager to please those that fed 'em and want to pay them for their services?

Those in the know, know that when you are forced to get up at 3AM to march underground to the building across the street, wash with Lye soap and eat green baloney sandwiches’ with a soggy oatmeal cookie, you look and feel like a zombie that's trying not to fart or pass out. Keep ‘em weak, hungry & tired and they’ll comply and sign anything.