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

Death penalty upheld for man forced to wear 'stun belt' during trial
A stun belt, sometimes worn by criminal defendants in court, can deliver an electric shock to the wearer. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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.

Twitter:@mauradolan

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