Lewis v. Marshall, 08-cv-00339, 2009 WL 604894 (NDNY March 6, 2009) (JKS)
In Lewis, a Northern District judge granted habeas relief based on the shackling of Petitioner Jesse Lewis's legs in front of the jury throughout the trial. According to the district judge, the shackling violated petitioner's due process right to a fair trial since the trial court never articulated on the record any adequate state interest for the shackling.
There are some interesting aspects to this decision worth discussing. First, the petitioner was pro se, meaning he was representing himself. In a separate post, I will talk more about pro se litigants in habeas proceedings. For now, I'll just say that a habeas grant to a pro se petitioner is pretty rare.
Second, relief was granted here even though there was no clear factual finding that the jurors had actually seen the petitioner in shackles. The court inferred that fact from the record. But it is not as if the jurors, let alone the trial judge or any other participant at trial, stated on the record that the jurors saw the defendant in shackles. Which is not to say that the inference that the jury could see them was not justified. The court's reasoning on this point is pretty persuasive.
Similarly, the court did not force petitioner to prove a negative. What do I mean? There was nothing on the record showing that the state trial court found that the shackling was necessary. In fact, there was actually nothing either way -- there was, apparently, no discussion on the record about the shackles. This does not mean that it didn't happen. Maybe it happened when the court reporter wasn't recording the proceedings. Sometimes that happens. However, the court held the deficient record against the State, not against the petitioner. And the court relied upon a Supreme Court decision in doing so.
It's actually refreshing. In order to obtain relief, defendants are often forced to prove a negative. For example, I had a case one time where the record did not show that the jurors had been sworn to be fair and impartial. It was pretty clear from the record that the court just forgot to do it. However, often times, a record's silence is not enough. A defendant must affirmatively prove that negative. The failure to swear the jurors was one of those situations. This meant that I first had to ask for a factual hearing in the trial court before the same judge who neglected to swear the jurors to try and prove that that same judge neglected to swear the jurors. Kind of crazy, right? As you can imagine, it ended up being pretty hard to prove a negative like that. Moreover, as I was before the same judge who made the mistake, that judge obviously had the incentive to clean up the record. As you can probably guess, I lost that case.