PORTLAND (AP) – A Portland man who was required to wear immobilizing leg braces while being tried for robbing and assaulting a stranger whose truck he stole was not deprived of a fair trial, the state supreme court ruled Tuesday.

Because the restraints were worn beneath Nicholas Bennett’s pants, they were not visible and there was no evidence indicating that jurors noticed them, the justices said.

Defense lawyer Thomas Connolly had objected to the restraints, arguing that they prejudiced the jury against his client by suggesting that he was dangerous.

Bennett, 23, was given a nine-year prison term after being found guilty of elevated aggravated assault and robbery in Cumberland County Superior Court.

Bennett was accused of stealing John Ohrt’s truck on Jan. 29, 2004, and then tracking him to his Portland home and stabbing him repeatedly with a pocket knife. Bennett admitted that he stole the truck but claimed that he was acting in self-defense because Ohrt attacked him as he tried to return it.

Ohrt’s injuries included a punctured lung and potentially fatal loss of blood. When police arrested Bennett, they found Ohrt’s bloodstained wallet and other possessions.

At Bennett’s trial, the judge cited no specific safety concerns but determined that restraints were warranted based on the nature of the charges and general concerns about courtroom safety.

To make sure that jurors were not made aware of the restraints, the judge arranged that Bennett would not have to walk when the jury was present. When he testified, he took his place at the stand before the panel was seated.

Connolly, who said his client posed no threat to security, was outraged at Tuesday’s ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The attorney said he was prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is not a small thing,” he said. “If you can chain a man up during a trial for no reason and call that a presumption of innocence, then that shows how much we’ve lost since 9/11.”

Noting that there was no indication that any juror had an inkling that Bennett was wearing restraints, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said she was not surprised that the court upheld his convictions.

“We didn’t think that the issue raised on appeal was going to get very far,” she said. “An appeal, to be successful, has to be based on more than a fantasy.”

The court also rejected Connolly’s argument that the trial judge erred in admitting as rebuttal evidence the tape recording of the “911” call made by Ohrt immediately after the attack. The justices agreed that any prejudicial effect was “extremely slight” and was outweighed by the tape’s relevance and probative value.

AP-ES-08-22-06 1407EDT



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