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Court Rules Police Presence Did not Violate Defendants’ Rights in Rhode Island Case

March 26, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today that the presence in the courtroom of four uniformed state troopers did not violate the rights of a man charged in a $4 million 1975 armed robbery of a Providence, R.I., safe deposit company.

The court unanimously reinstated the conviction of Charles Flynn, who was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the holdup. A federal appeals court had thrown out the conviction.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, said, ″We do not minimize the threat that a roomful of uniformed and armed policemen might pose to a defendant’s chances of receiving a fair trial. But we simply cannot find an unacceptable risk of prejudice in the spectacle of four such officers quietly sitting in the first row of a courtroom’s spectator section.″

Flynn and five others were on trial for more than two months on charges of robbing the Bonded Vault Co. on Aug. 14, 1975.

Flynn and two defendants were convicted and three of the accused were acquitted. Nine masked men robbed the company of approximately $4 million in cash and valuables.

Flynn’s conviction was thrown out in 1984 by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the presence of the four troopers denied him a fair trial. He is serving a prison term of 18 to 30 years in Massachusetts for a separate robbery.

Marshall noted that in the interest of a fair trial, such practices as shackling a defendant or requiring him to wear prison clothes generally are unacceptable.

But, he said, ″The presence of guards at a defendant’s trial need not be interpreted as a sign that he is particularly dangerous or culpable. Jurors may just as easily believe that the officers are there to guard against disruptions.″

Marshall added, ″Indeed, it is entirely possible that jurors will not infer anything at all from the presence of the guards. If they are placed at some distance from the accused, security officers may well be perceived more as elements of an impressive drama than as reminders of the defendant’s special status.″

He said that federal courts should be reluctant to declare mistrials in such cases. Convictions should be overturned only if the courtroom situation is ″so inherently prejudicial as to pose an unacceptable threat to defendant’s right to a fair trial.″

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