In Tarrant County, Texas, defendants are sometimes strapped with a stun belt around their legs. The devices are used to deliver a shock in the event the person gets violent or attempts to escape.
But in the case of Terry Lee Morris, the device was used as punishment for refusing to answer a judge's questions properly during his 2014 trial on charges of soliciting sexual performance from a 15-year-old girl, according to an appeals court. In fact, the judge shocked Morris three times, sending thousands of volts coursing through his body. It scared him so much that Morris never returned for the remainder of his trial and almost all of his sentencing hearing.
The action shocked the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, too. And it has now thrown out Morris's conviction on the grounds that the shocks, and Morris's subsequent removal from the courtroom, violated his constitutional rights. The court said the shocks effectively barred him from attending his own trial, because he was too scared to return to the courtroom.
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.
"We do not believe that trial judges can use stun belts to enforce decorum," Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez said of Judge George 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. It 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.
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.
The 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," responded Morris, who has recently sued his own attorney and the judge, whom he wanted recused from the case.
Gallagher warned him against making outbursts and said he would either have Morris removed from the courtoom or use the shock belt on him. When Morris did not respond as the judge wanted, he ordered the bailiff to shock him.
Gallagher did not return a request for comment seeking his rationale for use of the stun belt on Morris; he declined to comment to Texas Lawyer, saying the case is coming back to his court.