The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the seemingly obvious legal principle that the jury should not know that a defendant is in custody at the time of the trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rocheleau.
In May of 2013, the defendant broke into the 62-year-old victim’s home in the middle of the day. The victim had been napping when the defendant broke into her house, and after she woke up she confronted him in the kitchen. After the victim grabbed a knife and demanded to know what the defendant was doing, he fled into her back yard and later into her driveway. The victim confronted the defendant again in her driveway as he was apparently trying to get into her car. He attempted to run away, but neighbors thwarted his escape. Police officers arrived at the scene and arrested the defendant. The victim reported to the police that she was missing a $20 bill. The defendant was charged with breaking and entering in the daytime with intent to commit a felony, wanton destruction of property over $250 (for causing damage to the backyard fence), and assault and battery (for pushing the victim in the driveway). At trial, the defendant attempted unsuccessfully to argue his intoxication was a defense to some of the charges. The jury convicted him and he appealed.
The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the trial judge had committed reversible error by ordering him to remain shackled during the trial, even in the presence of the jury. The judge apparently had a practice of allowing defendants in custody to remove their handcuffs at trial but preventing the removal of their leg shackles (which restrained the defendants by ankle cuffs that attached with a metal chain). The judge said the defendant did not need to stand up when the jury entered and exited the courtroom (which is standard practice in court) so as to not allow the jurors to see the leg shackles. The defendant’s attorney objected to no avail at trial. In defending his order to have the defendant shackled, the trial judge pointed out that the back of the courtroom was not locked, and it opened up into a lobby that led directly into a parking lot. It would have been easy for the defendant to escape, reasoned the judge, and therefore it was necessary for the defendant to remain shackled. As the trial judge should have known, his order was in conflict with the federal and state constitutions. Appellate courts have repeatedly acknowledged that juries are naturally going to be predisposed to believe people in custody are guilty of crimes. Therefore, absent specific reasons requiring a defendant to be physically restrained, a judge may not keep handcuffs or leg shackles on a defendant during the course of a trial.
In this case, the Appeals Court correctly concluded the trial judge’s order that the defendant remain shackled was completely inappropriate. The Court pointed out that the judge did not make any findings that the defendant had threatened violence, behaved in a disruptive way, or posed any apparent risk of flight. The Court also said many courtrooms in the Commonwealth have unlocked doors in the back that would allow for a theoretical escape – the configuration of the courtroom did not justify the judge’s order in this case. Therefore, the judge had committed error and violated the defendant’s rights.
Unfortunately for the defendant, the Appeals Court then applied one of its favorite legal principles – harmless error. When a defendant appeals his conviction in Massachusetts, appellate courts are presented with two questions: (1) did the trial judge (or the prosecutor) make a mistake? and (2) if so, what is the appropriate remedy? The Appeals Court (and the Supreme Judicial Court) often find that there was an error in the trial court. However, if the Commonwealth can prove the error was “harmless,” the defendant’s conviction will stand. The Commonwealth’s argument in all of these cases is that the evidence against the defendant was so strong that any mistake made by the judge or the prosecutor did not make a difference. Unfortunately for defendants, the Appeals Court loves this argument and many, many convictions are preserved with the harmless error doctrine. This case demonstrates how incredibly difficult it is to win on appeal, even when a trial judge makes a blatant mistake during the course of the trial.