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Name: Larson v. Palmateer
Case #: 04-35465
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 02/14/2008

Visibly restraining a criminal defendant is not allowed unless the trial court finds the restraints are necessary under the particular circumstances of the case. The trial court required defendant to wear a security leg brace at his murder trial, and the record suggested it was visible to the jury. But mid-trial, the court ordered the brace removed and told the jury that the it was a security device used to transport prisoners and that the court decided to take it off because defendant had a physical impairment. In his federal habeas petition, defendant alleged the shackling violated his right to due process. The only justification contained in the record for the restraints was made at a pre-trial motion where the court said the shackles were needed because the courtroom security was understaffed and where it assured defendant that he would not be wearing the leg iron in front of the jury. The district court rejected defendant’s claim, justifying the need for restraints based on his record of absconding. The Ninth Circuit found there was a due process violation because the trial court failed to make the necessary finding of necessity in this particular case, and the error could not be cured by the reviewing court’s after-the-fact justifications. But the court found the error harmless under the standard applicable on federal habeas review. (See Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619.) Here, the error did not have a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict” because a leg brace is not as obtrusive as other forms of restraints and because the brace’s removal mid trial would have suggested to the jury that defendant was not a dangerous person needing constant restraint.