NY Top Court: ‘Long Forbidden Routine’ of Visible Shackling Applies To Verdict Reading and Jury Polling

The New York Court of Appeals decided last month that a trial court violated the rights of a defendant by restraining him while the jury announced their verdict. 

In the case of People v. Oscar Sanders, lawyers with Davis Polk and advised by the Legal Aid Society successfully appealed to the New York Court of Appeals on behalf of defendant Oscar Sanders and secured Sanders a new trial. In the opinion released Feb. 13, Judge Rivera of the Court of Appeals reaffirmed constitutional prohibitions against shackling defendants at a trial without need, and explicitly extended that protection to the reading of the verdict and jury polling for the first time. 

During a trial, absent a “special need” clearly explained and recorded by the judge, a defendant must not be in shackles visible to the jury during the guilt process of the trial. 

In the case of Sanders, the trial judge violated this constitutional due process prohibition by having the defendant be visibly handcuffed as the jury entered the courtroom to render its decision without explaining the restraints. Since the Court of Appeals unanimously decided the trial judge’s error was not harmless, the court waived Sanders’ conviction and ordered a new trial.

“We are pleased that the Court unanimously agreed that allowing the jury to see Mr. Sanders in shackles before the verdict was accepted was prejudicial and requires a new trial,” said David Crow, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society who worked on the legal defense team. “The decision sets a clear bright line rule for the trial courts to follow in this area.”

Before reaching the Court of Appeals, the appellate division affirmed Sanders’ conviction, concluding that the judge’s error of leaving the defendant handcuffed without any explanation on the record was harmless.

Instead, the Court of Appeal held that until the jury returns to the courtroom, publicly announces and confirms the verdict, the defendant remains presumed innocent. Therefore, the constitutional prohibition on restraining a defendant without explanation remains in force. 

With defendants who have a history of lashing out at bad news, extensive criminal records, or something similar, judges can often justify their order to have the defendant remain shackled during a proceeding. However, if a defense counsel objects, the judge has to justify their decision. 

According to Dmitriy Shakhnevich, a lawyer and Adjunct Assistant Professor at John Jay College, cases like these boil down to what extent the jury was harmed.

“Prejudice is always the issue when it comes to these cases: Absent this potential constitutional flaw, would the verdict have been different?” Shakhnevich said. “That’s why these cases are so hard to win, and if this one was won, that’s telling.”

In response to the defense counsel’s objection to their defendant remaining in shackles before the reading of the verdict in the case of Sanders, the trial judge offered few words.

“All right,” the judge said. “The application is denied. Bring in the panel.” 

That decision to allow the jury to see Sanders shackled ruined the case against him. 

Since a new trial was ordered and the convictions were reversed, Sanders again faces one count of attempted assault in the first degree and one count of assault in the second degree stemming from a physical altercation. He also has two charges of criminal contempt for violating court orders of protection. 

Before the reversal, Sanders was sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment.

But the successful reversal rings louder than just a win for Sanders, according to Davis Polk lawyers who worked as the defense counsel for Sanders.

“It’s important for our client for sure — who absolutely deserves a new trial,” said Amelia Starr, Chief Pro Bono Counsel for Davis Polk. “But I think it’s just as important from a systemic perspective, that really sends the message very clearly to the appellate and trial courts that they cannot do this.”

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