One of the fundamental rules of a criminal trial is that the defendant shouldn't be shackled or chained up during the trial. Even the most conservative judge will agree that it would give the jury the impression that the defendant is dangerous and violent - not to to mention probably guilty. The same reasoning applies to the rule prohibiting defendants from being tried in jail clothes. Even if the jury knows a defendant is in jail, their appearance creates at least a subconcious belief in their guilt.

For the most part judges know the rules - and follow them. The issue is usually where there is a need to physically restrain a defendant. If there's no other alternative it might be permissible. Shackling or restraining a defendant in a manner where it can by the jury is a last resort.

This is one of those rights that is considered fundamental. That means that if the judge improperly allows a defendant to appear in shackles the conviction is going to be reversed. At least that's what I thought the law was until the case of Vaughn Ray Bell. Mr. Bell was charged with the heinous offense of possession of a controlled substance. He was shackeled during trial not because of anything he had done. Instead, the judge stated he did that for everyone in custody.

The Court of Criminal Appeals had no problem in holding they shouldn't have done this. There has to be a legitimate reason to shackle someone - which is not what we do to everyone. What was suprising was the Court held that the error was harmless because the jury could not have seen the restraints, and therefore would not have known he was restrained.

Perhaps that makes sense, but if that is the approach you are going to take why not just say it's permissible to restrain someone as long as the jury can't see it. As it now stands, a court has no incentive to comply with the law, because it's not going to be harmful unless you do a bad job of it.So why not just say that.

Unfortunately, this is not the first decision like this. Instead, it is one of many rules which creates a right, but has no remedy. When that's the case is it really a right at all?

Walter Reaves
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Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves has been practicing law for over 35 years.
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