Man given electric shocks during trial has conviction thrown out

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 also shocked the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso. And it has now thrown out Morris' conviction on the grounds that the shocks, and Morris' subsequent removal from the courtroom, violated his constitutional rights.

Since he was too scared to come back to the courtroom, the court held that the shocks effectively barred him from attending his own trial, in violation of the Constitution's Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a defendant's right to be present and confront witnesses during a trial.

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 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. 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.

Morriss trial defense attorney, Bill Ray, told Texas Lawyer he didn't object to use of stun belt during trial because his client was acting "like a loaded cannon ready to go off." He also claimed that he did not believe Morris was really being shocked.

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.


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