In Yellowstone County District Court recently, Leo Simpson Stewart’s case was called. He stood up from his seat in court and shuffled, ankles chained, hands cuffed and connected to a chain around his waist, to the podium for a probation revocation hearing. The original case, from 2014, was for felony drug possession.
But before the hearing could proceed, his attorney, Richard Gillespie, made sure Stewart was unshackled. Gillespie had filed the paperwork the night before, so while Judge Ingrid Gustafson called another case, the detention officer undid Stewart’s cuffs and chains, and Stewart was called again after being unshackled.
It’s a scenario that is playing out more often after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May against blanket policies of shackling inmates during court proceedings. But Gillespie is the first to push the issue locally.
Gillespie said he began filing the motions recently and has not yet had a motion denied.
“I think (the judges) all realize that this is my client’s constitutional right,” he said.
Gillespie said he understands the practice takes extra time, but that it’s worth it because it ensures protection of defendants’ Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights.
“I will say, when the shackles come off, the demeanor kind of changes in the courtroom,” Gillespie said. “The client becomes a little more approachable. Their humanity kind of returns to them at that point.”
Peter Ohman, public defender division administrator for the Office of the State Public Defender, said defense attorneys always prefer to have clients unshackled.
“Obviously, our preference is for our clients to appear in front of the judge in a manner that makes them look like the citizens they are, who haven’t been convicted of any offense yet," he said.
Ohman said he didn’t know whether other attorneys across the state were making motions for clients to be unshackled. The issue, he said, has more often been a sticking point in juvenile court where justice officials are concerned about the stigma of shackling on youth.
“(They’re) basically being brought into a room in front of a bunch of strangers in ankle chains and a belly chain,” Ohman said.
But in the 13th Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County, the busiest district in the state, Gillespie’s motions are seeing some pushback.
“In an already bound-up court system, that simply doesn’t help,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said.
Linder said the issue plays differently in federal and county courthouses. The James F. Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings has security screening on the first floor, with a metal detector and required identification process. Security there is managed by the U.S. Marshals Service, and defendants are seen one at a time, unshackled.
The volume of criminal proceedings at the Yellowstone County courthouse far outweighs that at the federal courthouse, and members of the public come and go throughout the day to visit county offices housed at the courthouse, like the Elections Department or Motor Vehicle Department.
“County courthouses are places to do business, and federal courthouses are places to do justice,” Linder said. “Period.”
Linder said the sheriff’s office may have to take a deputy off patrol to enhance security at the courthouse if more unshackling motions are made.
The sheriff said he’s seen several incidents where criminal defendants presented a safety threat during courthouse proceedings.
In 1999, a prosecutor from Big Horn County needed surgery on his hand after he was attacked by a defendant in the courtroom. Immediately after then-Judge Russell Fagg set a sentencing date for Leonard Jefferson Sr., whom a jury had just found guilty of attempted deliberate homicide, Jefferson grabbed a glass water pitcher and hit the prosecutor in the head. (Yellowstone County courtrooms now use plastic water pitchers.)
The prosecutor, Curtis Bevolden, needed six stitches to close a head wound and surgery to fix two severed tendons in his hand.
The 9th Circuit ruling pertains to pretrial court proceedings. Inmates have long been required to remain unshackled during trials, unless the judge deems it a security risk.
The issue is now in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the federal Department of Justice filed to challenge the 9th Circuit ruling.