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Due Process/Harmless Error: Shackles On The Defendant At Trial.


People v. Clyde 2011 NY Slip Op 08453

Decided November 22, 2011 New York Court of Appeals 

Issue: whether the presence of shackles on the defendant during trial violated his constitutional rights and whether it so prejudiced the defendant that it required a new trial.

Holding: Harmless error analysis is applicable in the due process analysis when a trial court has ordered the use of visible shackles without adequate justification articulated on the record . Here, defendant’s shackling during trial was harmless.

Facts:  A female corrections office at Auburn Correctional Facility was attacked by one of the prisoners.  During the attack she was unable to see her attacker.  A civilian employee of the prison saw the attack and tried to stop the inmate.  The inmate ran out of the building.

Corrections Officer John Exner found defendant Raymond Clyde in the yard. He was sweating profusely, was acting nervously, and gave an explanation for his presence in the yard that made no sense to the officer. Rebich identified Clyde as the man he had encountered in the corridor.

Clyde’s DNA was found on a sock, a towel, and a glove, left behind when the attacker fled the corridor. The DNA samples on the towel and glove came from semen. Semen was also found on the female victim’s T-shirt, but was insufficient for identification purposes.

The female employee had numerous facial lacerations, She told the nurse who treated her at the prison infirmary that an inmate had tried to rape her. Clyde was indicted on charges of attempted rape in the first degree, assault in the second degree unlawful imprisonment Defense counsel sought an order from County Court directing that Clyde be permitted to appear in court without prison garb, chains or shackles.

The People,  produced a report of Clyde’s criminal history, showing that he was serving a prison sentence of 25 to 50 years, The People also pointed to Clyde’s earlier convictions and to a history of over 20 disciplinary findings during his present incarceration.

When Clyde’s trial began in December 2007, County Court agreed that Clyde could wear non-institutional clothes and need not wear handcuffs, but insisted that he wear leg irons. The trial court offered to have a “curtain” draped around the defense table to conceal the leg irons. After some discussion with Clyde about the practical difficulties of such an arrangement, which would not allow Clyde to attend side-bar conferences without revealing the leg irons, Clyde agreed to forego the curtain. At no point did County Court place on the record its findings showing that Clyde needed restraint by means of leg irons.

Clyde waived his right to counsel. Properly warned of the risks of self-representation, Clyde proceeded pro se throughout jury selection and his trial . Clyde did not raise the subject of his shackles again, and sought no cautionary instruction in that regard.

The jury found Clyde guilty on all counts. County Court granted Clyde’s motion with respect to the charge of attempted first-degree rape, dismissing that count of the indictment,

Clyde appealed, arguing that County Court had failed to articulate a reasonable basis on the record for its determination to restrain him in shackles during the trial. The People appealed County Court’s order dismissing the charge of attempted first-degree rape. The Appellate Division reversed County Court’s judgment of conviction, ruling that the use of shackles was reversible error, and further held that the trial court had properly dismissed the attempted rape charge.

Legal Analysis: In Deck v Missouri 544 U.S. 622 (2005) the United States Supreme Court, surveying  held that the Federal Constitution prohibits the use of physical restraints visible to the jury during a criminal trial, absent a court determination that they are “justified by an essential state interest . . . specific to the defendant on trial” Such essential state interests include “physical security, escape prevention, [and] courtroom decorum” The trial court must exercise “close judicial scrutiny”  in determining whether such an interest requires shackling.

The Deck Court enunciated three fundamental legal principles that underlie this well-grounded holding: the presumption of innocence, securing a meaningful defense, and maintaining dignified proceedings.  Visible shackles may not be used unless justified by an individualized security determination conducted by the trial court, which “must be case specific; it should reflect particular concerns, say, special security needs or escape risks, related to the defendant on trial” to avoid committing error, a trial court requiring a defendant to be visibly shackled should place its individualized findings on the record.

Finally, the Supreme Court clarified that “where a court, without adequate justification, orders the defendant to wear shackles that will be seen by the jury, the defendant need not demonstrate actual prejudice to make out a due process violation. The State must prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt that the [shackling] error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained'”

Here, County Court did not place on the record its reasons for considering leg irons necessary during Clyde’s trial. We cannot tell from the record whether County Court shackled Clyde as a matter of routine because he had already been convicted of a violent crime, or whether the court engaged in case-specific reasoning that led to the conclusion that shackles were necessary. The use of leg irons was therefore a violation of Clyde’s constitutional rights under Deck.

The issue then becomes whether the trial court’s error was harmless. Because we find that the trial court committed error as a matter of Federal Constitutional law, we apply Supreme Court precedent in deciding w

Were we to decide this question under State Constitutional law, the result would be the same. A defendant has the right to be free of visible shackles, unless there has been a case-specific, on-the-record finding of necessity. However, we would not hold, as a matter of State law, that an error in ordering shackles requires automatic reversal.

A constitutional error is “considered harmless when, in light of the totality of the evidence, there is no reasonable possibility that the error affected the jury’s verdict”  We take into account “two discrete factors: (1) the quantum and nature of the evidence against defendant if the error is excised and (2) the causal effect the error may nevertheless have had on the jury”. We therefore must decide whether the proof of Clyde’s guilt was overwhelming and whether there is no reasonable possibility that the jury would have acquitted him were it not for the shackling error.

The evidence was overwhelming. In particular, DNA evidence and Rebich’s identification placed Clyde at the crime scene, we do not believe that there is a reasonable possibility that the jury would have acquitted Clyde had he not worn visible shackles at trial. A jury, faced with a defendant accused of assaulting and/or attempting to rape a civilian while incarcerated, is more likely to conclude that the defendant was shackled as a precaution, because of the nature of the crimes charged, than to conclude that the defendant was shackled because he was independently known to be dangerous.

Clyde also argues on appeal, testifying physicians were improperly allowed to testify as to their conclusions regarding the female victim’s and Rebich’s injuries, in the context of statutory interpretation,  because those conclusions were for the jury to draw.

Admissibility turns on whether, given the nature of the subject, the facts cannot be stated or described to the jury in such a manner as to enable them to form an accurate judgment thereon.  The facts that underlie physical injury and risk of serious physical injury can readily be stated to a jury so as to enable the jurors to form an accurate judgment concerning the elements of assault and unlawful imprisonment. It was therefore error to over-rule Clyde’s objections and permit this expert testimony.

Nonconstitutional harmless error analysis applies to this error. The evidence that  was overwhelming and there is no significant probability that the jury’s verdict on these counts would have been different had it been required to draw its own conclusions with regard to the extent of the two victims’s injuries. Consequently, the evidentiary error was harmless.