- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

A federal appeals court has nullified a bank robber's conviction and 105-year sentence because a trial judge let U.S. marshals strap a 50,000-volt stun belt on him.
"Use of a stun belt as a security device at trial imposes substantial burdens upon a defendant's constitutional rights," said the 3-0 decision, which establishes the first legal standards for courtroom use of the restraint device. U.S. courts and prisons have used stun belts to deter escapes since 1991.
"The district court abused its discretion in ordering [Jeffery S.] Durham to wear the belt," the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday in ordering a new trial for Durham. If the court's ruling stands, it would take 105 years off the 132-year sentence Durham is serving, including for other robberies, at a federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
Durham never was shocked by his belt, but the Atlanta-based appeals court accepted his claim that fears of accidental triggering distracted him from helping his attorney at the trial, and that prosecutors failed to show that didn't affect the verdict.
The $800 belts universally called StunTechs for their original brand name are concealed by a shirt or jacket and avoid the need for handcuffs or shackles that may prejudice jurors. Fear of an electric jolt inhibits a prisoner who is violent or an escape risk.
A prisoner who attacks someone or attempts to flee can be disabled by electrical shock, triggered by a radio control held by a nearby officer.
"StunTechs have been worn 60,000 times but only activated intentionally 37 times, and there were nine accidental activations prior to us putting a guard over the switch seven years ago," said Dennis Kaufman, whose company sold about 1,800 waist belts and now markets a smaller, less bulky version that fits an arm or a leg.
The belts are used routinely by governments in the United States and abroad. They administer a temporarily disabling eight-second surge of electricity that stops men in their tracks or knocks them down, causing brief pain and muscular weakness that can last 45 minutes.
Amnesty International labels the belts "torture devices," and the U.N. Committee Against Torture said in May 2000 that U.S. use of stun belts on prisoners may violate a Geneva Convention against torture.
Mr. Kaufman argues the temporary discomfort caused by the stun belts may save a criminal's life and protect those around him.
"If you can control somebody from a distance and it's nonlethal, what better way is there? We're protecting everybody, including the defendant in court. It's really a no-brainer," Mr. Kaufman said in an interview.
Mr. Kaufman said defibrillators that shock a heart back into rhythm produce 400 joules of energy, while StunTech produces 0.35 joules.
"StunTech puts out four milliamps, not enough to light a small Christmas tree bulb," he said.
U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Drew Wade said StunTechs are used in virtually all 95 federal court districts.
"We've never had an accident," Mr. Wade said.
Mr. Kaufman said stun belts are used in 30 of the 50 state prison systems and have been sold to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Mr. Wade said most districts own one or two stun belts. In Washington, D.C., he said, six were used during last year's three-month capital-murder trial of Tommy Edelin and his "1-5 Crew." U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth let marshals use the belts in the interest of "maintaining a secure courtroom."
The 11th Circuit opinion written by Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson was joined by Judges Rosemary Barkett, who like Judge Wilson is a Clinton appointee, and by Judge Gerald B. Tjoflat, a Nixon appointee.
By declaring that stun belts infringe on a defendant's constitutional rights, the appeals court imposed a court duty to scrutinize each case, saying trial judges must consider facts on the record to justify each use of a belt, weigh alternatives to electroshock security, and decide how the belt should operate.
Durham still was serving 27 years for a bank robbery to which he pleaded guilty. The court said Durham and his accomplices got away with almost $500,000 in a series of robberies.

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