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Seventh Circuit Orders New Trial due to Shackling of Prisoner Plaintiff

Seventh Circuit Orders New Trial due to Shackling of Prisoner Plaintiff

by Lonnie Burton

On April 4, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted a new trial to a prisoner who had sued jail guards alleging claims of excessive force, who was required to be visibly shackled throughout the trial.

While a pretrial detainee at the Langlade County Jail in Wisconsin, Brian A. Maus filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arguing that guards and other employees had used excessive force against him in two incidents that occurred in 2007. His claims survived summary judgment and went to trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. At the time, Maus was no longer held at the jail; he had been transferred to a state prison.

After losing at trial, Maus appealed. He raised only one issue – that he was denied a fair trial because he was forced to wear shackles and prison clothes in full view of the jury, while the defendants were allowed to wear their guard uniforms.

According to the Court of Appeals, the district court judge made no effort to prevent the shackles from being seen by the jury nor did he instruct them not to allow the sight of the shackles and Maus’ prison clothing to influence their decision, even though he had promised to give such an instruction. The only time during the trial that Maus was un-cuffed was when he testified.

In its 4½-page ruling, the Seventh Circuit wasted no time in excoriating the district court judge. “The sight of a shackled litigant is apt to make jurors think they’re dealing with a mad dog; and just the contrast between a litigant’s wearing prison garb and his opponents’ wearing law enforcement uniforms is likely to influence the jury against the prisoner, and has long been recognized as being highly prejudicial,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The Court went on to point out that while there may be adequate cause to shackle a disruptive or violent prisoner litigant, steps still must be taken to conceal the restraints from the jury. There was no indication that Maus was either violent or disruptive, and in fact he had testified without restraints.

Any “curative instruction” would have been ineffective or even made things worse, the appellate court noted, stating, “We are not so naïve to believe that telling jurors not to think about something will cause them to forget it.” Even worse, “to tell the jurors to ignore shackles may rivet the jurors’ attention to them.”

Finding that a plaintiff is entitled to the minimum restraints necessary and that no restraints were required in this case, the Seventh Circuit reversed the jury verdict and granted a new trial. See: Maus v. Baker, 747 F.3d 926 (7th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, the case was reassigned to a different judge and the district court granted Maus’ motion to appoint counsel. A second trial was held – presumably without Maus in visible restraints – and the jury again found in favor of the defendants on November 19, 2014.


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Related legal case

Maus v. Baker