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Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622 (2005)

In 2005, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the Court's 7-2 holding that the Constitution forbids the use of visible shackles during both a capital trial's guilt and penalty phases, unless such shackling is justified by an essential state interest specific to the defendant on trial (such as courtroom security). The majority argued that the law has long forbidden use of visible shackles during a capital trial's guilt phase, and that the reasons underlying this prohibition (like the possibility shackles will bias the jury) extend this rule to the penalty phase.

Due Process Violation (Shackling) Carman Deck was sentenced to death again at his second penalty trial. This time, his case reached the United States Supreme Court on the issue of whether the visible shackles he wore during his sentencing trial violated the Federal Constitution. The Court held that the three fundamental legal principles underlying the prohibition on routine shackling during the guilt-innocence trial “apply with like force” to capital penalty trials. 544 U.S. at 630-632. First, “[v]isible shackling undermines the presumption of innocence and the related fairness of the factfinding process;” second, shackles and other physical restraints interfere with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel; and third, the judicial process must be dignified, “which includes the respectful treatment of defendants,” and visible shackling undermines that objective. With regard to the first principle, the Court held that although the presumption of innocence no longer applies at the penalty phase of a capital proceeding, the decision between life and death, “given the ‘severity’ and ‘finality’ of the sanction, is no less important than the decision about guilt,” and “[n]either is accuracy in making that decision any less critical.” Id. at 632.

The Constitutional requirement is not absolute. A judge, in their discretion, is permitted “to take account of special circumstances, including security concerns, that may call for shackling,” but any such determination must be specific to the defendant on trial. 544 U.S. at 633. That requirement was not met in Mr. Deck’s case. The trial judge made no findings on the need for shackling Mr. Deck; the only stated reason for imposing the shackles was that Mr. Deck had already been convicted. Id. at 634. There was also evidence in the record that the shackles Mr. Deck wore were visible to the jury. Because shackling is inherently prejudicial and the prejudicial effects ‘‘cannot be shown from a trial transcript,’’ a defendant need not demonstrate actual prejudice to make out a due process violation where the judge orders the defendant to wear visible shackles without adequate justification. Id. at 635.

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