When Jonathan Keith Jackson was sentenced to death, he stood before the jury wearing an electronic shock device around his waist that could have thrown him writhing to the floor at any moment.
The California Supreme Court upheld the use of what is known as a stun belt during his sentencing Monday, reasoning that even if the trial judge were wrong to equip Jackson with the remote controlled shock belt, it was not critical to the jury’s sentencing decision.
But the ruling came over the strong objections of Justice Goodwin Liu, who noted findings entirely ignored by the majority that the fear imposed by the belt can change the defendant’s ability to function, communicate, and his demeanor during testimony.
“Here, a man was unlawfully forced to have a 50,000-volt electric shock device strapped around his waist while a jury sat in judgment as to whether he should live or die for his crimes,” Liu wrote. “It is reasonably possible that the stun belt adversely affected his demeanor, and we cannot know what decision the jury would have made absent this error. Because the court’s refusal to find prejudicial error in this case erodes the applicable standards for both error and prejudice, I respectfully dissent.”
Critically, Liu points out that the judge never made a determination that Jackson was a security risk warranting the use of a stun belt — potentially allowing the creeping of another device that imposes devastating punishment into the criminal justice system. Several courts allow the use of stun belts, but only after a security finding.
California has a history with the stun belt. The device garnered international attention when defendant Ronnie Hawkins was “electro-shocked in open court for repeatedly interrupting the judge,” according to Amnesty International. “His subsequent lawsuit led to a federal court ban on the belt in Los Angeles County.”
Liu points out that stun belts have been accidentally discharged on defendants in a number of other trials, in one case leading to hospitalization.
The stun belt is what is known as a Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology (REACT). The four-inch-wide band is worn under the prisoner’s clothing. As the California chief justice described it in a 2002 judicial opinion, it is “powered by two 9-volt batteries connected to prongs which are attached to the wearer over the left kidney region. . . . The stun belt will deliver an eight-second, 50,000-volt electric shock if activated by a remote transmitter which is controlled by an attending officer. The shock contains enough amperage to immobilize a person temporarily and cause muscular weakness for approximately 30 to 45 minutes. The wearer is generally knocked to the ground by the shock and shakes uncontrollably.”
The company that manufactures the belt boasts that one of its greatest benefits is its capacity to humiliate the wearer. “After all, if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that by the mere push of a button in someone else’s hand could make you defecate or urinate yourself, what would that do to you from the psychological standpoint?” the brochure says.
In a 1999 study, Amnesty international branded the tactic torture, and found it had been increasingly used in U.S. correctional facilities, prompting federal prisons to review the practice.
The study generated national attention around the tool. And the California Supreme Court held in 2002 that wearing a stun belt during trial could prejudice a defendant’s testimony, writing that it was designed to achieve “total psychological supremacy” and “may impair the defendant’s ability to think clearly, concentrate on the testimony, communicate with counsel at trial, and maintain a positive demeanor before the jury.”
But the tactic has since fallen from public attention, with little follow-up study on when and how the belts are used. Liu lamented in his dissent that the court’s newest ruling “signals a retreat from the rigorous standards governing the use of stun belts and similar devices.” He also noted that the California court is particularly likely to find errors at trial and in sentencing “harmless” in upholding death sentences.