Texas State District Judge George Gallagher was annoyed by defendant Terry Lee Morris’s refusal to answer his questions and making various statements himself, so he ordered that Morris have a stun belt strapped around his legs. From the Appeals Court opinion:
“Mr. Morris, I am giving you one warning,” Gallagher told Morris outside the presence of the jury. “You will not make any additional outbursts like that, because two things will happen. Number 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?”
Each “hit” sent an eight-second, 50,000-volt shock into Morris. Judge Gallagher had Morris shocked three times. It terrified Morris sufficiently that he didn’t return for the remainder of his trial and missed almost all of his sentencing hearing.
Texas’s Eighth Court of Appeals threw out Morris’s conviction last month on the grounds that the shocks and Morris’s subsequent removal from the courtroom violated his constitutional rights. The court held that the judge’s outrageous conduct effectively barred Morris from attending his own trial, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a defendant’s right to be present and confront witnesses.
In Tarrant County, defendants cane be strapped with a stun belt around their legs to restrain them if they appear violent or try to escape. It works like an electrified dog collar. When activated, the stun belt can cause seizures, heart irregularities, involuntary urination or defecation and other negative effects. Judges are not supposed to shock defendants in their courtrooms just because they won’t answer questions or because they displease the judge by failing to follow rules of decorum, the court said.
Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez wrote in the opinion:
“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. 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.”
Let us not neglect to note the incompetence of Morris’s trial defense attorney, Bill Ray, who said that he didn’t object to use of stun belt during trial because his client was acting “like a loaded cannon ready to go off.”Ray alsoi said he didn’t believe Morris was really being shocked. You know, it could have been a little gag Morris and the judge rehearsed earlier.
I suppose it is too much to expect the bailiff to refuse to carry out what should have been recognized as an obviously illegal order, but that would have been the ethical course. Also, a competent clerk would have whispered in the judge’s ear, “Uh, Your Honor? You can do that.”
The Washington Post story ended with this mordantly amusing note:
“The judge, contacted by The Post, declined to comment, citing judicial ethics.”
What would that judge know about ethics?