Do any American courts still make the defendent sit in a dock?

Do any American courts still use a prisoner’s dock? We inheirted them from England, but they’ve long since fallen out of favor (instead the defendent sits with his lawyer at the counsel table). Some very old courthouses still have them. When I was a juror a few years ago everybody who was called for jury duty were intially assembled in the county courthouse’s large, 19th century, courtroom. There was a wooden dock behind the lawyers’ tables, but there wasn’t anything in it. The actual trial was held in more modern annex in a generic institutional style courtroom where the defendent sat with his lawyer. I assumed the dock was only there for historical preservation reasons, not for use during trials. So any American courts still have docks and actually use them? I tried a google search, and it seems like they’re still in use (or at least they were up until a few years ago) in Massachusetts, but the sites are a little unclear. I thought all American courts had the defendent sit with counsel (that’s how it is on TV and from what I remember from the Criminal Justice classes I took).


IANAL, but I’d be really surprised. The dock has always seemed a bit prejudicial to me, and I’d think that it would have been phased out.

I watched a reenactment by the historical society of a Red Scare trial that had happened in our Old Courthouse. They used the dock, which was still there because the active courthouse was moved to another building about that time, and the Old Courthouse became the county historical museum.

A prisoner doesn’t even have to be present in the court room if they don’t want to be. There have been several instances where the defendant’s lawyer kept the defendant out of the court room so the witnesses didn’t have a reference to the defendant’s appearance and was unable to describe the defendant.

I would assume that a dock would not normally be allowed because it would prevent a prisoner from conferring with their attorney.

Plus, courts have ruled the defendants should not be forced to wear prison garb or be shackled unless there is a strong evidence that the defendant would be violent. This is because sitting in prison garb and shackled prejudices the jury. (He looks guilty!).

I would assume that forcing a prisoner to sit in a little cage would also be considered prejudicial to the jury for the same reason. Sitting there makes the defendant look guilty.

They’re still used over here in the UK. The accused is usually flanked by two burly prison warders (or policemen) in more serious cases. (The stairs to the dock often lead straight to cells built beneath the courthouse.)

I’ve been in dozens of U.S. courtrooms over the years and have never seen a dock. As qazwart wrote, it would be seen as highly prejudicial to the defendant.

On the other hand, courtrooms do usually have a somewhat closed-off area for the witness. I wonder if this is what the OP is referring to with respect to old courthouses.

We still have docks. The theory is that there is no real prejudice because the jury understands that everyone gets to sit in the dock, so it’s not as though any special prejudice attaches to any particular accused. Whether that is sufficient to overcome the unconscious prejudice involved is an argument for another thread.
But I am curious - what do you do in the case of an accused who is a serious security risk? We have a special dock for such cases which is surrounded by shatterproof bullet resistant perspex, and the accused can be manacled or pedicled to bars inside the dock in a way that is not apparent to the jury.

What do you do in an environment where jurors are expecting the accused to sit next to his lawyer in a generally unrestrained way, and yet you have to restrain him?

In those cases, the defendant can be restrained. The courts have leeway in providing a balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of others in the courtroom from being intimidated or put into harms way. There also has to be a balance between the right of the accused to conduct the trial as they see fit, and the right to a fair trial and to the process. A defendant might decide to defend themselves, but the court might insist they retain their attorney for consultation.

If the defendant cannot sit peacefully in a court room, they can be restrained, but it is understood that restraints can be challenged in an appeal. There have been cases of defendants gagged or even ordered to be removed from the courtroom because they were disrupting the proceedings. Certain defense witnesses may testify in secrecy although there is a general idea that the accused has a right to confront his accusers and to question witnesses. Obviously, it’s hard to do when removed from the court, or the witnesses are testifying in anonymity.

Generally, I’ve always seen the defendant sitting beside his attorney (usually wearing a suit and a fresh haircut) looking quite respectable and not like some crazed maniac who would have snuffed that dear old grandmother merely because “she smelled like ointment”.

Thanks for that. Generally, courts here won’t overturn a trial judge’s discretionary exercise of restraints on an accused because it is utterly unsatisfactory for an appellate court (who can impose all the restraints it wants if the appellant is even in the court room) to try to be brave on behalf of other people (ie, the jurors at the trial).

Generally, my experience is that the new suit and the haircut usually backfires. The suit is always cheap and ill-fitting, and it is always obvious that the accused is not used to wearing one and is uncomfortable in it. And the haircut almost always turns out to be a freshened up version of his usual mullet, maybe with a bit of product. Oozing class.

The whole ensemble screams an attempt to “handle” the jury to such an extent that juries are unimpressed. Particularly if there are in evidence contemporaneous photos of the accused looking like his normal self.

I’ve been in courtrooms where an area like the jury box is walled off in bulletproof glass and the prisoners are brought out and sit their and wait their turn to be arraigned.

When did the defendant has to wear a suit become standard in US courts. It is not in English courts or most commonwealth courts, though some will wear it.

As for the dock its usually near the counsel’s sitting area and he/she can take instructions whenever needed.

Finally a judges control of a jury is a lot greater in England and Wales then from the little I have seen in the US is the practice there. It is usually explained to the jury that the defendant sits in the dock, the whole jury instructions are given before the trial begins.

The defendant doesn’t have to wear a suit, but many choose do to so because they want to make a good impression.

Defendants who have proven themselves a nuisance may be forced to appear shackled in their prison uniforms, which can have a negative effect on the jury.

I’m a public defender in Virginia. We always sit at the table with clients. If I have a client who makes me nervous, I’ll say something to the deputy beforehand, but usually they have figured out who the troublesome ones are going to be based on behavior back in lockup. I’ve been doing this for almost two years, and I’ve never had a client take a swing at me or anything like that (even the seriously mentally ill), but once I had a deputy yell at me to stand back when I was trying to give instructions to a newly-arraigned client. She later explained that she had observed him getting tense and was worried he would lash out.

At the office, we were all interested in that story about the guy in Kentucky or wherever who knocked out his attorney after an unsuccessful motion to have new counsel appointed. We all agreed that if that happened to us, we would want to stay on the case (although it does present an appearance of bias) because otherwise any client who didn’t like us would start throwing punches to get us taken off.

My husband doesn’t really care for the more dangerous aspects of my job. :slight_smile:

I swear there’s a thread on this subject from some time in the last three years, but damned if I’m willing to spend the 15 minutes it would take to search to find it. Perhaps someone more intrepid than I will look it up.

ETA: easier than I thought:

I was once a prosecutor in a criminal case in which the judge was concerned the defendant would freak out when she imposed sentence. She asked for additional deputy sheriffs to be in the courtroom, and by my count there were eight. I’ve never felt safer! The defendant was as meek as a lamb when she sent him away for six months.

You can find lots of surveillance videos on YouTube of defendants acting out in court, lunging for deputy’s guns, trying to break free, etc. It’s very rare that they get away with it; the only recent such example was that Atlanta case a few years ago where the guy shot a judge and a bailiff and escaped from the courthouse entirely.