‘Barbarism’: Texas judge ordered electric shocks to silence man on trial. Conviction thrown out
The ruling, handed down Feb. 28, was reported Tuesday in the Texas Lawyer.
Judges are not allowed to shock defendants in their courtrooms just because they won’t answer questions, the court said, or because they fail to follow the court’s rules of decorum.
“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,” Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez said of Gallagher’s actions in the court’s opinion. “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.”
The stun belt works in some ways like a shock collar used to train dogs. Activated by a button on a remote control, the stun belt delivers an eight-second, 50,000-volt shock to the person wearing it, which immobilizes him so that bailiffs can swiftly neutralize any security threats. When activated, the stun belt can cause the person to seize, suffer heart irregularities, urinate or defecate and suffer possibly crippling anxiety as a result of fear of the shocks.
The stun belt can also be very painful. When Montgomery County, Md., purchased three of the devices in 1998, a sheriff’s sergeant who was jolted as part of his training described the feeling to The Washington Post like this: “If you had nine-inch nails and you tried to rip my sides out and then you put a heat lamp on me.”
Most courts have found that the stun belts are constitutional as long as they are used on defendants posing legitimate security threats — but the Texas justices said there was no evidence of that here.
he discord between Morris and Gallagher arose after Gallagher asked Morris how he would plead: guilty or not guilty?
“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?”
Federal prosecutors investigated and declined to charge a Tarrant County state district judge who ordered a bailiff to electrically stun a defendant three times during a trial in 2016.
A reference to the federal criminal civil rights violation investigation and charging decision is contained in a footnote on a Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct document describing its conclusions in a complaint case that involved Judge George Gallagher in the 396th Judicial District Court.
The document, which was prepared last month by the commission, refers to a U.S. Department of Justice review of Gallagher connected to his stun orders during the trial of Terry Morris.