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Handcuffing Lady Justice: Appearances of Guilt

I. Fighting for the Client

Well-qualified criminal defense lawyers do much more than just fight for their client’s fundamental, substantive rights. They recognize that the very process of presuming innocence before guilt is one of the essential safeguards of any part of an accusation, hearing. or trial. This often has sometime surprising elements. Put another way, it’s crucial that in any criminal case, your criminal defense lawyer aggressively unshackles a defendant from even the appearance of guilt.

An important case in Washington, North Carolina, raised several issues around possible prejudice or unfair treatmentcreating a possible appearance of guilt—during a trial. Because the accused had mental health challenges, this was especially important, in terms of ruling out any prejudices against an accused defendant. With the defendant having an IQ of 61, the state nevertheless insisted that the defendant was fully capable of developing or participating in his own defense. The reality was quite different. Any person suffering from any type of mental limitation, whether before, during, or after the accusation of committing a crime, needs the help of a criminal defense lawyer. This case illustrates one aspect of how this expertise may come in to play. Because someone with a lower IQ may not be fully aware or compliant with warden or police instructions, it’s not uncommon to handcuff them or severely restrict their movement to and from court.

II. Handcuffs: Like Wearing a Guilty Sign?

In carefully reviewing the record, the criminal defense lawyer became aware of a potential problem in terms of a juror interview. Did that person support the concept of presumed innocence? This question was to have major significance, on appeal. It was especially important regarding the use of handcuffs on the defendant, Remwick.

The problem really began with one particular set of questions, to a prospective juror named Sykes. The questions came from the judge himself: the judge asking whether Sykes “accepted” the idea that a defendant is presumed to be innocent.

Judge: do you understand that it is a two-end stage proceeding to the extent that first you will be concerned with whether or not the defendant is guilty or innocent of first-degree murder. Do you understand that?

Sykes: yeah, but over the course of – well, I’ve been here three days. Seen him come and go and he has the handcuffs on. Well, if he was innocent until proven guilty, handcuffs wouldn’t be on him…

Judge: do you understand that there has been no evidence presented at this point and under our law the state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And at this point under the law the defendant is presumed to be innocent. Do you understand that?

Sykes: I understand that law, what you were saying about the law, but I – but then I see him. And when I see that he comes in with handcuffs on, obviously I feel like he needs the handcuffs on.

At this point, an experience criminal defense lawyer knows that this possible juror will be excused for cause. But it can have rippling damages on other jurors’ thinking about the accused. Thus, the criminal defense lawyer in this case was concerned about what other jurors may have thought regarding this set of responses by Sykes. After all, it should be clear that Sykes did not truly understand ‘presumed innocence.’ Two other prospective (and future) jurors heard this exchange.

III.   I’m Not Listening: Keeping Jurors Unbiased

The issue then became that the trial court had no further words of caution to the other future jurors. The criminal defense lawyer argued that the trial court should have made an extra effort to assure that the conversation he was having with Sykes did not create any false legal impressions on the jury pool members.

The criminal defense lawyer argued that there should be, essentially, some weighing or measuring, as to how damaging an appearance in handcuffs can be. The Supreme Court responded by noting that they have specifically addressed whether or not a mistrial would be required, simply because of a juror having seen an accused in handcuffs, while being escorted into court. The court noted that just “momentarily” seeing the defendant didn’t require a mistrial. On the other hand, the Supreme Court also noted that if the opinions were so shocked by seeing someone in handcuffs that the process was “infected,” that a mistrial should occur. Ultimately, the Supreme Court in this case weighed out the process and decided that the trial court judge had acted with enough safeguards.

IV.  Images In the Mind

The criminal defense lawyer had cited a series of similar North Carolina cases, where images of handcuffs, not only from in court, but from newspapers might have created opinions about guilt. Similarly, there were cases indicating that comments made in front of other future jurors could not possibly be cleaned up or erased from juror minds. But it was not enough to win a new trial in this case.

In this case, although they expressed concern about these seeds of bias possibly being planted, the Supreme Court justices ruled that the trial court judge had acted within his ‘scope’ of discretion. They felt he had made a valid effort to essentially sanitize the comments of Sykes. This ruling emphasizes that perfection may not be obtained, no matter how scrupulously safeguards are respected. An experienced lawyer, however, is constantly on guard to improve the likelihood of a completely fair trial. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court also noted that no objection to the handcuffing issue had been raised at the time of the trial itself. This case serves as an important lesson, and has been embraced by experienced criminal defense lawyers. The issue of handcuffed or restrained defendants will not go away, and is another civil right that will bear watching.


The idea of innocent until proven guilty is a concept peculiar to the American style of law. America has pioneered this concept, but it is up to each criminal defense lawyer to assiduously maintain this right. As we have seen in this case, jurors are an important part of this process. Once again, unless an experienced criminal defense lawyer is aware of these crucial appearances of due process, these vital rights may be lost. Police departments are slowly waking up to the possibility that people with mental or behavioral challenges not only should have, but are entitled to, consideration in light of their disability. Whether or not handcuffs, or other restraints, are always required (or appropriately used) can be an important part of a fair legal process. If you, a family member or a loved one have questions about any arrest, or involving related claims involving handcuffs or restraints, including (but not only) jury or presumption of innocence issues, please contact us. You will speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer, who can best answer your questions about how your rights can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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