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Friday, September 28, 2012

A Bit More About the Shock Belt - Elizabeth Johnson Case

P.S. Twitter hasn't worked for me all day. If yours is working, feel free to tweet these shock belt posts for me!

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My, how the rumors do fly. The shock belt is commonly worn in Maricopa County (Arizona) courtrooms by defendants, which is why I was looking for it at the beginning of Elizabeth Johnson's Kidnapping trial. But it certainly can vary from case to case, which is why it was not a huge surprise that she was not wearing it.

To be very clear, though, the shock belt is operated by trained professionals from the jail staff, the guards who are charged with her security during the trial. The purpose of the belt is to control the inmate in the case of an attempt at escape or assault. It is never, ever used to "punish" an inmate for crying in court or smiling flirtatiously or coughing or anything else not related to an outright eruption of violence or flight. These are not, after all, the neck rings from the thrall episode of Star Trek, where nuances of behavior are controlled by remotely controlled pain devices.

  • Some belts give the guard the option of avoiding the pain altogether. If an inmate is hiding, the guard can activate an alarm that will shrill out from the the prisoner's waist rather than shock him. This could even be useful in a non-violent emergency, such as a power outage, an earthquake or other natural disaster. I was present in one trial, that of serial killer Dale Hausner, where such a power outage occurred. All went dark. Hausner actually called out his whereabouts so the guard's flashlight beam could find him (so helpful, that Dale **insert sarcasm emoticon here**).  Other inmates might be less ingratiating, and activating an alarm could be very useful.

    I really can't answer for other states, but I can't imagine any American courtroom would permit a judge to hold the controls of an electronic shock belt. Judges, imperfectly or not, are supposed to stay impartial. They are there to protect the rights of the defendant more than any other thing. Our justice system is weighted in that direction. To turn the judge into an instrument of daily physical torture would turn the whole system on its head.  

    The guards, who are charged with keeping everyone safe, including the inmate, are to use the shock belt only in the case of a direct physical threat. The guards have no role in the legal proceedings, such as whether or not Elizabeth Johnson, or any other defendant in custody, can be allowed to cry in front of a jury.

    Defense attorneys are expected to constrain their clients courtroom behavior through advice and instruction. Lawyers can be admonished by judges to become more assertive with their clients if behavior fails to improve.  So the court has other ways of controlling defendant behavior. Physical force is left strictly to the security detail. 

    Our courts can be very confusing and mysterious. I hope this little tidbit helps out some avid trial watchers who are trying to understand what is currently happening on the 6th floor of the new court tower in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. 

    For more on the shock belt, please visit this post 

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    This prisoner would have loved to have her shock belt removed...get to know her, for just 99 cents!


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