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Trial shackling did not end with Bobby Seale – Not attending victim’s funeral can haunt murder defendant at trial

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Trial shackling neither started nor ended with Bobby Seale during the Chicago 8/7 trial.

Last week, the D.C. Court of Appeals set forth the following standard for shackling a criminal defendant during trial:

In Deck v. Missouri, the Supreme Court held that “the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the use of physical restraints visible to the jury absent a trial court determination, in the exercise of its discretion, that they are justified by a state interest specific to a particular trial.” The Court based its decision on “three fundamental legal principles:”21 (1) “the criminal process presumes that the defendant is innocent until proved guilty”;22 (2) “a right to counsel”;23 and (3) “[t]he courtroom’s formal dignity, which includes the respectful treatment of defendants.”

Williams v. U.S., ___ A.2d ___ (D.C., June 14, 2012).

Applying the above standard, Williams upheld the defendant’s murder conviction despite his being leg-shackled throughout most of the trial, with an awkward skirt attached to the defense and prosecution tables to hide everyone’s ankles.

Williams also contested, unsuccessfully, the admission of evidence at trial that he did not attend the victim’s (his estranged wife) funeral, which took place before he got locked up pretrial in this case. The appellate court reasoned that this was akin to allowing flight evidence at trial, and the trial court offered to provide the jury a limiting instruction that alternative reasons to consciousness of guilt could have existed for not attending. The appellate court reasoned that allowing in such evidence was admissible to help show that the defendant did not have a good relationship with the victim.

Trial counsel did not object to evidence that the family dog licked the victim’s carseat after the homicide date. The appellate court called such evidence irrelevant and highly inflammatory against the defendant. However, defense counsel did not object to such evidence at trial, thus not preserving the matter for appeal other than for plain error review.

Trial counsel also did not preserve for appeal evidence that the defendant did not reach out to his sons/ the victim’s children to visit with them after the homicide. However, he ultimately got incarcerated pretrial, which would have made it awkward at best for the defense to have countered such evidence — if admitted over objection — with evidence that the defendant was incarcerated pretrial and may have or did feel embarrassed to have his sons see him in prison garb.

Defense counsel could have preserved the dog-licking and child contact issues pretrial through a motion in limine. Had either issue only arisen for the first time during trial testimony, the matter would have been more tender to raise by objection in front of the jury.