ALBANY - A federal appeals court threw out the drug conviction of a Canadian woman on Thursday, criticizing New York authorities for keeping her shackled during her trial though she had no criminal history.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge also failed to investigate potential juror misconduct, issued flawed jury instructions and improperly allowed a federal agent's testimony that Tara Haynes "realized" there were sealed bags containing 72,000 Ecstasy pills in the gas tank of her rental vehicle.
Haynes was questioned and arrested in 2011 in Champlain, crossing the border from Canada into the U.S. She was sentenced to almost 16 years in prison.
In Thursday's ruling, the three-judge panel said the trial "was marred by significant errors" whose overall effect "cast serious doubt" on whether her rights were violated. They threw out the conviction and sent the case back to the lower court.
Defense attorney Brian Barrett, of Lake Placid, said the 36-year-old single mother of two small children from suburban Montreal, who worked for a phone company, was "a blind mule" used by smugglers.
The jury initially deadlocked before U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino sent them back with instructions to consider each other's views and work to reach a verdict. The appeals court said she should also have advised them against giving up conscientiously held beliefs.
"We're looking to get our client out of jail," Barrett said Thursday.
Barrett said that in two previous trials in the Northern District of New York that court officials "were palpably ignoring" the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate to limit shackling defendants at trial, so in this case he didn't object but put it into the record at the end of the proceeding and made it part of the appeal.
The appeals court said there was no indication why it was necessary to shackle Haynes, saying it can be done for safety or security concerns. "There was no finding why the defendant was a threat to anyone," the judges concluded.
They cited a Supreme Court ruling that the sight of shackles can affect a jury's feelings about a defendant and the technique itself "is something of an affront" to the dignity of judicial proceedings.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan said Thursday that defendants are not routinely shackled at trials in the Northern District and restraints aren't often used. Prosecutors are reviewing Thursday's decision, he said, declining to comment on the specifics of Haynes' case or why she was shackled.
The appeals court said it heard arguments indicating "that it has been standard practice" in the Northern District to shackle trial defendants "without a particularized finding of necessity." The judges called that "troubling" and inconsistent with top court precedents.
Prosecutors told the panel that the practice was neither routine nor arbitrary. They said the trial judge makes a decision based on a recommendation by the U.S. Marshal's Service and defendants generally wear leg irons obscured from the jury's view rather than waist chains or handcuffs.
Calls to D'Agostino and to Northern District Chief U.S. Judge Gary Sharpe about the ruling and the shackling policy were not immediately returned Thursday.