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Shackling at California Jury Trial, Without Justifying Need, Is Reversible Error

A California state prisoner who was convicted of possessing drugs in his cell had his jury conviction reversed because the trial court had not determined the necessity of his being tried in chains and prison garb.

Melvin Simmons, while incarcerated at Salinas Valley State Prison, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to six years for possession of a controlled substance. The charge was sending marijuana to a cell on another tier via a ?fish line.? His principal contention on appeal was that he was prejudiced by his appearance at trial in restraints and prison garb, in plain view of the jury. While his attorney never moved for Simmons? being totally unrestrained, he did ask that Simmons have one hand freed. The appellate court held that this request was sufficient to preserve the issue on appeal that the trial court then had a duty to make a documented determination that restraints and prison garb were necessary and justified.

Even though the jury acquitted Simmons of a second related charge, arguably proving that they obeyed the court?s instruction not to be swayed by his being in restraints, their conviction hinged on ?weak? evidence. Being shackled when testifying in his own defense could well have adversely influenced Simmons? mental processes, thus ?prejudicially affecting his constitutional rights of defense? (citing People v. Mar, 28 Ca1.4th 1201, 1219 (2002)).

The appellate court concluded, ?We strongly admonish the trial court that shackling decisions must be made on the record and on the basis of demonstrated, particularized necessity.? The conviction was reversed, leaving Simmons subject to retrial. See: People v. Simmons, 48 Cal.Rptr.3d 857 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 2006), ordered not to be published (Jan. 3, 2007).

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Related legal case

People v. Simmons