Illinois county defends use of stun belts

Monday, May 5, 2003

MURPHYSBORO, Ill. -- A belt is a required part of the wardrobe for defendants at almost all criminal trials in Jackson County.

But not just any belt, a stun belt designed to deliver thousands of volts of electricity that can drop people to their knees.

Some defense attorneys and the human rights group Amnesty International object to the device, which has been used in some states since the 1990s.

While Jackson County uses the belt on virtually every defendant that goes before a jury, some jurisdictions, including the Illinois Department of Corrections, don't use the device. Others, such as Madison and St. Clair counties, reserve the belt for their most dangerous inmates.

Jackson County Sheriff William Kilquist defends its use.

"I think it's one of the more humane forms of restraint," Kilquist said about the belts worn under a defendant's clothing. "When a jury sees shackles and handcuffs, there can be a presumption of guilt. This gives the suspect due process in court."

But state appellate defender Daniel Kirwan, whose office handles Jackson County appeals, said the stun belt can affect how a defendant acts in court.

"It restricts his will to speak up, especially if the person is representing himself," Kirwan said. "The jury doesn't know it's there, but it also doesn't know he is sitting there fearing that this thing is going to go off."

Amnesty International has called for a nationwide suspension of use of the belts.

"It's clear it is being used as a method of intimidation," said Gerald LeMelle, Amnesty's deputy executive director of advocacy. "There is a cruel and unusual punishment clause in our Constitution that applies here."

Kilquist said Jackson County started using the belt after a defendant in the early 1990s escaped during trial and ran a few blocks before being caught.

The belt operates on a remote control that controls two buttons intended to press against a person's kidneys.

Belt developer Dennis Kaufman, of Electronic Defense Technology of Cleveland, said the device is meant to immobilize a person. He said it has been worn about 60,000 times.

Jackson County officers must wear the belt during their required training with the device and jail administrator Lt. Jeff Whitbeck said the belt feels "like a very hard pinching, like a dog biting you in the back."

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