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Tomorrow’s Argument in Deck v. Missouri

In 1998, petitioner Carman Deck was convicted of, inter alia, two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. After his convictions and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, Deck sought state post-conviction relief on the ground that his trial counsel had been ineffective at sentencing. In 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court agreed and vacated his sentence.

Deck’s resentencing proceedings began in 2003. On the first day of those proceedings, Deck was led into the courtroom wearing legirons and handcuffed to a belly chain. Contending that the restraints were prejudicial, Deck’s counsel immediately objected and offered a variety of alternatives to the use of visible restraints, but his objections were overruled. At sentencing, the state presented evidence to support its contention that aggravating factors were present, while Deck presented mitigating evidence. The jury again imposed a death sentence, and Deck again appealed, arguing this time that the restraints were unconstitutional. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected his appeal, concluding that the trial court has the discretion to impose security measures to preserve order and security in the courtroom; that the record supported the use of the restraints; and that, in any event, Deck was not prejudiced by the use of the restraints.

The Court granted certiorari, and tomorrow it will consider whether the restraints violated Deck’s Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights and, if so, whether the state must show that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Deck relies on a trio of Supreme Court decisions – Illinois v. Allen (1970), Estelle v. Williams (1976) and Holbrook v. Flynn (1986) – in which the Court held that defendants may be restrained at trial only as a last resort and to further an essential state interest. Deck contends that this rule applies equally to the penalty phase of a capital case. In fact, Deck asserts, it is particularly important that defendants in capital cases not be unnecessarily restrained because the issue of the defendant’s “future dangerousness” if he is sentenced to life in prison is often a key issue for juries at the penalty phase. Deck then argues that if the restraints are found to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court’s decision in Chapman v. California (1967) dictates that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict. Here, Deck explains, in light of the substantial mitigating evidence that he presented, the state cannot show that the restraints were harmless.

The state urges the Court to decline to extend its precedents governing restraints in the guilt phase of a trial to the sentencing phase of capital trials. It explains that the concern underlying those precedents was the need to avoid an adverse effect on the presumption of the defendant’s innocence, whereas a capital defendant’s guilt has already been determined by the time of the penalty phase. The state concedes that a defendant in a capital case is entitled to present both mitigating evidence to the jury and evidence to rebut any misleading information presented by the state, but it denies that the restraints were in any way misleading. Rather, the state explains, Deck was “by definition” dangerous because he had been convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. Addressing Deck’s argument that the restraints may negatively affect the jury’s determination of future dangerousness, the state makes the creative argument that the restraints could actually help Deck’s cause by demonstrating to the jury that he would do well in a “similarly structured” prison environment. Finally, the state contends that as a general matter, there is little evidence that Deck’s sentencing was actually affected by the restraints.

Assistant Public Defendant Rosemary Percival will argue on Deck’s behalf, while the State of Missouri will be represented by Assistant Attorney General Cheryl Nield.

The parties’ merits briefs can be found here.