Stun Belt Torture in L.A. Court

Revolutionary Worker #967, July 26, 1998

On June 30, police in Long Beach, California tortured a 48-year-old man with electric shock. Ronnie Hawkins later described what happened to him as 50,000 volts tore into his body for eight seconds: "It was like a stinging in my spine and then a lot of pain in my back. I was paralyzed for about four seconds.... I guess that's how a guy feels who goes to the electric chair."

The barbaric electro-shock was not carried out in an alley or the back room of some police precinct--the kind of places where Amerikkka's torturers in blue regularly brutalize people. It took place in an open courtroom. And it was carried out under the direct order of Municipal Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani.

Hawkins was acting as his own attorney in a petty theft case. Under California's "three strikes" law, Hawkins faces the possibility of a 25 years to life sentence for this small-time offense. And because he is HIV positive, a "three strikes" sentence means he faces almost certain death in prison.

The "three strikes" law is often portrayed as the result of the "will of the people." But some juries have refused to convict if they think the defendant might get life in prison from some minor crime. So juries are not supposed to be informed that they are hearing a "three strikes" case. During the trial, Ronnie Hawkins defied this rule and spoke up to tell the jury what they were being asked to do to another human being. This is one of the reasons that the authorities forced him to wear a stun belt during the sentencing hearing before Judge Comparet-Cassani.

Hawkins righteously argued that a prior conviction should be ignored in his sentencing. The judge told him to shut up and just go quietly along with the proceeding--otherwise, he would be zapped. Hawkins said, "You're going to electrocute me for talking?" His last comment before being hit with electro-shock was, "That is unconstitutional."

For over two years, the L.A. County Sheriffs have forced some prisoners to wear battery-operated stun belts which deliver a powerful shock over the kidneys when activated by a remote control button. Officially these instruments of torture are supposed to be used only to disable a prisoner who assaults someone or tries to escape. Ronnie Hawkins did none of these things. Lawyers from the Public Defender's office who witnessed the incident said that Hawkins was talking loudly and interrupted the judge a few times. But he wasn't even making verbal threats. "It was horrible, horrible," said one of the lawyers. Hawkins is due back in Judge Comparet-Cassani's court later this month for the sentencing.

The electric shock incident was front page news in the July 9 edition of the Los Angeles Times, and it caused widespread outrage. The article noted that the shock from a stun belt can be fatal--especially for someone with a heart condition. Amnesty International has campaigned against the device, and the ACLU is demanding that its use be discontinued immediately.

More than 100 counties in over 15 states use stun belts. The manufacturer claims it is safe. But there is a long list of "non-lethal" police devices and techniques that have killed many people: chokehold, stun guns, pepper spray, hog-tying. According to statistics cited in the media, there have been 27 recorded uses of the stun belt, and almost a third have been "accidental."

The electro-shock of Ronnie Hawkins was the first use of the stun belt inside a courtroom. But within days, on July 13, Brian Hill, a defendant in an Oakland court was "accidentally" stunned, and briefly hospitalized. Like Ronnie Hawkins, he was acting as his own attorney. Hill has accused deputies of deliberately torturing him because he is a jailhouse lawyer.

On July 16, the Los Angeles October 22nd Coalition and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS) held a press conference in front of the Long Beach Courthouse to denounce the use of the stun belt. The press conference was covered by local TV, radio and print media.

Following are excerpts from some of the statements given at the Long Beach press conference.


Rev. Richard Byrd, Christ Unity Center and the October 22nd Coalition:

"The October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, Christ Unity Center, Unity Center of African Spirituality, the L.A. Metropolitan Church and an outraged community denounces Long Beach Municipal Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani for her unwarranted and inhuman use of a stun belt to silence a defendant in her courtroom. L.A. courtrooms or any courtrooms or detention facilities must not be allowed to mirror the practices of South Africa under apartheid or the courtrooms of Peru today under Fujimori. People of conscience throughout our community must demand an end to this barbaric and inhuman treatment. We speak out and denounce this practice today for Mr. Hawkins, and for the tens of thousands of other incarcerated human beings who are not able to speak for themselves under the threat of torture such as was witnessed to here. This community will not stand by and allow the continued abrogation of human rights. We call upon humanity to say `no.' Today it is happening to them, the `other people.' Tomorrow it will be happening to you if we don't speak out now."

Brother Ali of National Association of Brothers and Sisters In and Out (NABSIO):

"We are being stunned and electrocuted in courtrooms as if we were cattle. We refuse and we will not allow it. We will protest this atrocity, and we vehemently denounce Judge Cassani and any other judge who would use these methods to restrain an individual who is already in shackles and in chains."

Don Evans, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS):

"This `three strikes' a very draconian law. We have it on the books and we have to straighten it out. Otherwise there will be other judges that will behave as this judge behaves because they know they can get by with it. So many of our citizens are going to prison for life on minor crimes. We must see that these atrocities are stopped right now."

Bilal Mafundi Ali, Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA):

"We're calling on the judicial committee to dismiss Judge Comparet-Cassani from the bar. We're also calling for a change of venue for the trial of Ronnie Hawkins. We don't see him being able to receive a fair trial in Judge Comparet-Cassani's court. And if the judicial committee does not take responsibility and is not accountable to the community for Judge Comparet-Cassani's actions, then we're calling on the citizens of Los Angeles as well as all communities that are impacted by the justice system to mount a recall effort and have Judge Comparet-Cassani removed from the bench."

Mollie Bell, community activist from Compton and representative of Faith United Church:

"I want you to count with me: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Stop it right there. For eight seconds, that's how long. 50,000 volts of electricity going through you. Can you imagine what that's like? 50,000 volts of electricity? All because you talked back at the judge.... I'm speaking for my pastor from Faith United Methodist Church, and what we believe is that not only is this wrong because the people said it, it's wrong because God said it. We should go to court, stand up before the judge, and be given our time, not tortured like that. We shouldn't let no one torture you."

From ACLU of Southern California:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California joins today's coalition of national and international human rights activists who demand that this inhuman practice be ended, once and for all. We demand that the Los Angeles County Superior and Municipal Courts ban these electro-shock belts which are nothing more than modern-day versions of medieval torture devices. They have no place in our current criminal justice system."

Joey Johnson, RCP supporter and October 22nd Coalition:

"How many other hundreds of defendants over the past two years, defendants facing life sentences, have come through these courtrooms and not spoken out because they feared being electrocuted? How many more in the future that are facing 25 years to life will not speak out because they fear being electrocuted? Once it happens, it becomes `normal,' and we're just supposed to go along with it. They expect this whole generation that's been criminalized and is being sent off into the prisons and penitentiaries, to just go quietly. I'm glad Mr. Hawkins had the courage to speak up in spite of the judge's threats.

"We can't stand for this. Millions of people in society are sickened by it, are outraged by it. But we're here today telling people you can't just be sickened and outraged, you've got to come out against it. You've got to become active. And that's why I'm glad to be working with people together. Let's have a National Day of Protest on October 22nd. Let's go to the streets because it's only the people that are going to solve this. There's more prisons being built in this country than any time in the history of the country. There's 1.7 million people in the prisons of this country. Most of them are non-violent offenders. They're being warehoused. It's the criminalization of a generation. It's only the people that are going to stop it.... Stop police brutality, repression and the criminalization of a generation."

Other speakers were: Bill Tate, father of Preston Tate who was executed by a prison guard at Corcoran State; Stephanie Holtz, attorney with FACTS; Suzanne Griffin, President of the L.A. Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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