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Death penalty upheld for man forced to wear 'stun belt' during trial

Crime, Law and JusticeTheftCrimeJustice SystemCourts and the Judiciary

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence Monday for a man who was forced to wear a stun belt during his trial, rejecting arguments that the prospect of being electrically shocked adversely affected his demeanor before jurors.

In a 6-1 decision,  the majority noted that the prosecution had conceded the court erred in requiring the stun belt, but the justices concluded it did not affect the outcome of the trial.

The ruling came in an appeal by Jonathan Keith Jackson,  who was convicted of murdering a woman during an attempted drug-related robbery in Riverside County and sentenced to death.

Justice Goodwin Liu, in a lengthy dissent, said Jackson should not have been forced to wear the belt during the penalty phase of the trial, when jurors may study a defendant’s demeanor as they weigh whether to recommend life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

The belt can activate accidentally and emit a debilitating shock, and Jackson had feared setting it off, according to the high court.

“Most people, with such a device strapped around the waist, would sit as still and impassively as they possibly could in order to avoid activating it. (I would hesitate to even sneeze.), ” Liu wrote.

Liu said Jackson’s impassive demeanor might have contributed to the jury’s decision to recommend death.  Liu also observed that the sentence was a close question because a previous jury had deadlocked on whether to recommend the death penalty.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter:@mauradolan

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