Each year the Nevada Supreme Court decides important issues of criminal law and announces those decisions in the form of judicial opinions. Oftentimes, the same or similar issues present themselves year after year. However, interesting permutations as to well-established rules of law frequently are addressed and discussed in newer opinions. It, therefore, is incumbent upon practicing Nevada criminal defense lawyers to familiarize themselves with the latest Nevada Supreme Court opinions because one never knows when a well-established rule of law will be slightly modified or clarified. Because each case before the Nevada Supreme Court consists of slightly different facts, often principles of common law – sometimes decades old – take on new, previously unconsidered dimensions. Why is this significant? Because each new decision which announces a new rule of law establishes a brand new legal precedent which will bind similarly situated litigants within the jurisdiction of the Nevada Supreme Court. That is why diligent Nevada criminal defense lawyers who are committed to staying aware of the latest legal developments relevant to their practice area must review and understand each new criminal law decision rendered by the Nevada Supreme Court.
Recently, the Nevada Supreme Court reaffirmed the exception to the rule that persons accused of crimes have a right to be present at every stage of their trial in a murder case that occurred in Las Vegas. The exception to the rule holds that the exercise of this important right can be curtailed by a defendant’s obnoxious and disruptive behavior. Therefore, in order for a criminal defendant to exercise his constitutional right to attend all stages of his trial, he must behave appropriately and comply with any orders the judge may make. Sounds easy, right? Behave appropriately and follow the judge’s directives. Two simple things, no problem. Well, for Lesean it was a problem. A major problem. The opinion in the case lays out a history of courtroom behavior that was both outrageous and bizarre.
Lesean Collins was recently tried in a Las Vegas courtroom for robbing and murdering a twenty-eight-year-old Clark County woman. As indicated above, Collins apparently had a number of behavioral difficulties during his appearances in district court. He was accused of interrupting the judge on repeated occasions, threatening to physically assault the prosecutor assigned to the case and refusing to change out of his jail clothing at time of trial. In the face of this unruly behavior the trial judge and Collins’ criminal defense lawyers were forced to find ways to ensure that Collins received a fair trial. In other words, the judge and the Collins’ criminal defense lawyers were placed in the strange and unenviable position of having to take steps to make sure that the proceedings were not unfairly tainted by the defendant’s own conduct. While it probably seems odd to non-lawyers, the law requires the judge and lawyers participating in a criminal trial to make sure that the constitutional rights of the person on trial are not infringed upon even if, and especially when, a criminal defendant is acting inappropriately. Primarily, this means that nothing can be done by the court, lawyers or courtroom staff to impair the accused’s constitutionally mandated presumption of innocence in front of the jury. Therefore, even when someone – like Collins apparently was – is actively working against their own interests by behaving inappropriately in court, the law requires that all the trial participants take every reasonable step to make sure that the accused’s rights are protected.
A significant part of maintaining the presumption of innocence is making sure the defendant is not shackled or dressed in prison garb in front of the jury. Why? Because the constitutional benefit of the presumption of innocence is a “bedrock, axiomatic and elementary principle whose enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” This means that safeguards are made so that the accused is not shown to the jury in restraints or in clothing that makes it clear that he is being held in jail. Both of these things may convey to the jury a certain degree of dangerousness and guilt which the jury cannot consider when making their deliberations. As the United States Supreme Court has stated: “visible shackling undermines the presumption of innocence and the related fairness of the fact-finding process” as well as: “the presumption of innocence is incompatible with the garb of guilt.” That’s all well and good but what can be done when you have a person who is self-destructive enough to insist on wearing jail clothes in front of the jury?
In general, after explaining the rationale and reasoning of not wearing jail clothing in front of the jury, the court will give the person the opportunity to change into non-jail clothing. Generally, if the accused refuses to change but behaves in every other respect, they may attend trial. But if the defendant acts in a disruptive manner and continues to do so after being admonished by the judge and his criminal defense lawyers, he can be removed and the trial will proceed in his absence. In Lasean’s case, he was removed from the courtroom while the trial went forward until he agreed to change out of his jail clothing and act appropriately.
Of course, most people charged with crimes are smart enough not to act inappropriately in court. They show up on time, are courteous and abide by any orders the judge might make but, most criminal defense lawyers, especially those who have done trials involving persons charged with violent crimes have stories of clients who acted irrationally and self-destructively in front of a jury. Regardless of what a person is doing in court, it is always important to dress and act appropriately. It is incredibly important. If you choose to do otherwise, you will probably hurt your cause significantly.