To understand this story, you first have to know that in Tarrant County, Texas, courtrooms, stun belts capable of carrying electric shocks are sometimes strapped to defendants’ legs.
These belts are intended as a safety precaution, used to shock defendants should they get violent or try to escape.
But as the Washington Post reports, that’s not how Judge George Gallagher used them. In 2014, Gallagher used electric shocks to punish defendant Terry Lee Morris, on trial for soliciting a sexual performance from a 15-year-old-girl, when Morris refused to answer the judge’s questions properly. In total, Gallagher shocked Morris three times, “sending thousands of volts coursing through his body,” the Post reports. Each shock lasts about eight seconds and releases a 50,000-volt shock into the defendant’s body.
The shocks so deeply scarred Morris that he refused to return for the remainder of his criminal trial. He also missed almost all of his sentencing hearing.
Now the Texas 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso has thrown out Morris’ conviction, finding that the shocks violated his constitutional rights. The ruling was made on Feb. 28 and was recently reported in the Texas Lawyer.
Not only was coercing behavior in such a violent manner wrong, but because Morris was too scared to return to court after being shocked, that “effectively barred him from attending his own trial,” reports the Post, which violated his Sixth Amendment rights to be present and confront witnesses during his trial.
In the court’s opinion, Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez wrote: “While the trial court’s frustration with an obstreperous defendant is understandable, the judge’s disproportionate response is not. We do not believe that trial judges can use stun belts to enforce decorum.
“A stun belt is a device meant to ensure physical safety; it is not an operant conditioning collar meant to punish a defendant until he obeys a judge’s whim,” she continued. “This court cannot sit idly by and say nothing when a judge turns a court of law into a Skinner Box, electrocuting a defendant until he provides the judge with behavior he likes.”
The Post also gave a detailed description of the interactions that prompted Judge Gallagher to stun Morris in the first place. The punishment was sparked over a dispute during Morris’ plea entry.
This is what happened after Gallagher asked Morris how he would like to plead, from the Post:
“Sir, before I say that, I have the right to make a defense,” Morris responded.
He had recently filed a federal lawsuit against his defense attorney and against Gallagher, whom he wanted recused from the case. As Morris continued talking, Gallagher warned him to stop making “outbursts.”
“Mr. Morris, I am giving you one warning,” Gallagher said outside the presence of the jury, according to the appeals court. “You will not make any additional outbursts like that, because two things will happen. No. 1, I will either remove you from the courtroom or I will use the shock belt on you.”
“All right, sir,” Morris said.
The judge continued: “Now, are you going to follow the rules?”
“Sir, I’ve asked you to recuse yourself,” said Morris.
Gallagher asked again: “Are you going to follow the rules?”
“I have a lawsuit pending against you,” responded Morris.
“Hit him,” Gallagher said to the bailiff.
The bailiff pressed the button that shocks Morris, and then Gallagher asked him again whether he is going to behave. Morris told Gallagher he had a history of mental illness.
“Hit him again,” the judge ordered.
Morris protested that he was being “tortured” just for seeking the recusal.
Gallagher asked the bailiff, “Would you hit him again?”
The crime Morris was convicted of is certainly heinous—there’s no arguing that. But Morris, like everyone else, is due a fair trial. There are also other ways to punish someone like Morris for being uncooperative without having to resort to literally stunning them with electricity like a dog.
Gallagher’s cruel punishment also prolongs the process for the victim and her family, who now have to go through a new trial now that Morris’ conviction will be thrown out (a new trial has been ordered by the appellate court).
“Never before have we seen any behavior like this, nor do we hope to ever see such behavior again,” Justice Rodriguez wrote in her decision, adding that the courts are obligated to speak out against such actions, “lest we allow practices like these to affront the very dignity of the proceedings we seek to protect and lead our courts to drift from justice into barbarism.”
Gallagher, in case you were wondering, is still a judge, and declined to offer a comment to the Post on the story, citing judicial ethics.