A man sentenced to death in a 1996 murder that took place in Warrick County no longer faces the death penalty.
John Stephenson, 54, originally from Rockport, was found guilty after a lengthy trial in the murder of three individuals who were found shot and stabbed in a vehicle that had driven off the road in the Red Brush area. Stephenson was later sentenced to the death penalty after a jury recommendation.
However, despite the confirmation by the Indiana Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals overturned the sentence due to Stephenson being required to wear a stun belt throughout the proceedings. According to the decision, four jurors reported being able to see the device and were aware he was wearing it.
The stun belt was in use and on loan from a sheriff's office in a neighboring county, according to an article in The Standard at that time. The decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals states that the belts were used to restrain prisoners in the courtroom where a prisoner may act violently threatening jurors, the judge, lawyers or spectators.
With the belt, an officer could administer a shock to the prisoner. The belt is worn under the clothes but visible as a bulge and was never used throughout the course of the trial.
"No shock was sent during the trial, including the penalty phase, because Stephenson never acted up," the decision states. "Yet, seeing the bulge and recognizing it as the action part of a stun belt, the jurors may have thought it evidence that Stephenson was violent and unpredictable -- evidence confirming the jury's decision to convict and encouraging it to sentence such a person, already found to be a murderer, to death."
In addition, the decision states that the belt might have altered Stephenson's demeanor, causing him to be nervous and fearful, which jurors may have interpreted as signs of guilt. With that consideration, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction finding Stephenson guilty but overturned the sentence that would result in Stephenson being put to death.
The case came back to Warrick County last week for a final hearing when Stephenson accepted a sentence agreement for the charges upon the withdrawal of the potential for the death penalty. Warrick County Superior Court 2 Judge Robert Aylsworth confirmed the sentence of 50 years for two of the murders and 60 years for the third.
While Stephenson will be able to serve the two 50-year sentences concurrently, the third sentence of 60 years will be served at the completion of the first two sentences for a total of 110 years. Stephenson will also be credited for the more than 22 years that he has already served.
Stephenson was arrested in May 1996 after a manhunt to find the person responsible for the deaths of Brandy Southard, 21, John Tyler, 29, and Kathy Tyler, 29, all of Newburgh. The three were found shot and stabbed to death in a truck that had been peppered with bullets before it left the road into a ditch and through a fence on Youngblood Road in eastern Warrick County. The entire trial process lasted about eight months, with the guilty verdict and sentencing coming later in 1997.
Stephenson continues to serve his sentence in an Indiana Correctional Facility in Michigan City, Indiana.