On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
In this appeal, the Court determines whether the trial court's requirement that a defense witness appear before the jury in restraints and prison garb violates a defendant's right to a fair trial.
This matter arose during defendant's prosecution for certain drug offenses. Defendant and the State gave conflicting accounts at trial regarding the circumstances leading to defendant's arrest. The State presented two undercover narcotics detectives, who testified about their observations of drug transactions involving the defendant, defendant's reaction when the officers identified themselves, and defendant's attempt to flee. Defendant's account differed significantly from the officers' version of the events. He denied any drug involvement and contended that he fled because he believed the officers were"stickup boys" who intended to accost and rob him.
Defendant relied also on the testimony of several witnesses. Outside the hearing of the jury, defendant's counsel informed the trial court that one of the witnesses had been arrested on new charges and was presently incarcerated. (On appeal, this Court learned that the new charges concerned child support violations.) Defendant advised the trial court that this witness was critical and that his defense would be prejudiced if the witness appeared in handcuffs and prison garb. Defendant requested that the court provide the witness street clothing to wear during his testimony. The trial court denied the request, noting that reported decisions concerning prison garb pertain to defendants and not to their witnesses. Offering no further explanation, the trial court ordered that the witness testify in handcuffs because there was no requirement that he testify without them. The court issued a cautionary instruction to the jury prior to the witness's testimony. The court advised the jurors that the witness had not been convicted and was in custody because he could not post bail; therefore, he was entitled to a presumption of innocence as he testified.
The witness testified to events that occurred earlier in the evening of the arrest. The witness informed the jury, however, that he did not see anything after he left the defendant on the street corner where the officers purportedly observed the drug transactions.
The jury convicted the defendant. He was sentenced to an extended term of seven years, with three years of parole ineligibility. Defendant appealed, arguing in part that the trial court erred when it required the witness to testify in handcuffs and prison garb because it deprived him of his right to a fair trial.
The Appellate Division held that absent a showing on the record of a necessity for restraints, the trial court erred by requiring the witness to testify in restraints and prison garb. However, the panel upheld defendant's conviction, concluding that the witness's testimony was peripheral and that any prejudice resulting from the testimony while in prison garb and restrained was harmless.
HELD: The trial court's failure to state on the record its reasons for requiring defendant's witness to testify before the jury in restraints was reversible error. Moreover, in the future, a trial court may not require a defendant's witness to appear at trial in prison garb.
1. Both the state and federal constitutions guarantee defendants the right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. The fair trial right entitles a criminal defendant to have his or her guilt or innocence determined solely on the basis of the evidence introduced at trial, and not on grounds of official suspicion, indictment, continued custody or other circumstances not adduced as proof at trial. Accordingly, the right to a fair trial requires that a trial court allow inherently prejudicial practices only where justified by an essential state interest specific to each trial. A courtroom arrangement is inherently prejudicial when an unacceptable risk is presented of impermissible factors coming into play. (Pp. 6 to 7).
2. Consistent with the right to a fair trial, a trial court may not require a defendant to appear before the jury in restraints absent compelling reasons. Placing physical restraints on a defendant at trial is disfavored because the jury is likely to believe that the judge considers the defendant to be dangerous. Similarly, the fair trial right precludes the State from requiring that a defendant appear at trial in distinctive prison garb. Allowing defendants to appear in prison garb is improper because it may affect a juror's judgment, it furthers no essential state policy, and it operates usually against only those who cannot post bail prior to trial. (Pp. 7 to 10).
3. In respect of a defense witness, his or her appearance in restraints undermines the credibility of the testimony that the witness offers on the defendant's behalf. The danger lies not merely in the fact that the jury may suspect that the witness committed a crime, but in the inherent psychological impact that restraints will have on the jury's assessment of credibility. Requiring a witness to testify in shackles also encourages the jury to perceive the defendant as one who must turn to the testimony of a putatively guilty individual to help salvage his case. (Pp. 10 to 11).
4. Because the appearance of a defense witness in restraints presents a risk of unfair prejudice to a defendant, the trial court may subject a witness to physical restraint only when it has reason to believe it is necessary to maintain the security of the courtroom. In that instance, the trial court should hold a hearing and state on the record out of the jury's presence its reasons for shackling the witness, whether they are based on evidence from trial, information obtained from criminal records, or statements made by law enforcement officers. In part, the trial court should consider 1) the seriousness of the present charge, 2) the person's character, 3) the person's past record, 4) attempted escapes by the person, 5) evidence the person is planning to escape, 6) threats of harm to others, 7) threats to cause disturbance, and 8) evidence the person is bent on self-destruction. Finally, the court must instruct the jury that it give the restraints no consideration whatsoever in assessing the proofs and determining guilt. (Pp. 11 to 13).
5. Here, the trial court's decision to require the witness to appear in handcuffs created a risk of unfair prejudice to defendant because it both undermined the witness's credibility and presented the defendant as one who associates with individuals of questionable character. When such a risk is present, a defendant's right to a fair trial requires that the risk be justified by an essential state interest. The trial court's failure to create a record of its reasons for ordering the physical restraint of the witness suggests that its decision did not reflect an interest in courtroom security or decorum. If the record had established a justification for restraints that outweighed the risk of prejudice, the trial court, in a proper exercise of discretion, could have required restraints. Here, the trial court failed to create such a record. (Pp. 13 to 14).
6. Unlike the use of restraints, requiring a witness to testify in prison clothing furthers no vital state interest. Instead, that practice only prejudices a defendant both by undermining his or her witness's credibility and suggesting a defendant's guilt by association. Accordingly, going forward, a trial court may not require a defendant's witness to appear at trial in prison garb. A defendant need not make an affirmative request of the trial court that his or her witness appear in civilian clothing. Instead, as a general rule the corrections authorities should supply defense witnesses with civilian clothing and those witnesses should enter the courtroom in such attire. As soon as practicable, ...