The Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso has thrown out the conviction of Terry Lee Morris after Judge George Gallagher ordered him to be shocked with a stun belt to induce him to “follow the rules.” Gallagher’s actions were a disgrace and constitutes at a minimum assault upon a defendant. He should be removed from the bench for his actions in the 2014 trial. It is astonishing that he remains on the bench after such abuse of a criminal defendant. I have been a long critic of stun belts in court.
Morris was facing charges of soliciting sexual performance from a 15-year-old girl. Morris failed to answer questions from Gallagher and the judge proceeded to order the bailiff to activate his stun belt three times to induce his responses.
Gallagher ordered the shocks after becoming impatient over Morris’ failure to answer his question over his plea of guilty or not guilty. Morris responded “Sir, before I say that, I have the right to make a defense.” Morris raised his filings against Gallagher and his desire for a new judge. Gallagher describes his objections as “outbursts” and said “Mr. Morris, I am giving you one warning . . . 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.”
Morris responds “All right, sir” and Gallagher asks “Now, are you going to follow the rules?”
Morris again states “Sir, I’ve asked you to recuse yourself.”
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.
Gallagher asked him again if he was ready to cooperate and Morris told him that he had a history of mental illness. Gallagher responds by telling Morris: “Hit him again.” When Morris protests that he is being tortured, Gallagher asked the bailiff, “Would you hit him again?”
What is astonishing is that Morris’s trial defense attorney, Bill Ray, did not object to his treatment. It is simply breathtaking that a defense lawyer would not object to repeated threats, let alone orders, to electrically shock a client for failing to be responsive. Ray has stated that he was not sure that Morris was being shocked and described his client as acting “like a loaded cannon ready to go off.”
In the court’s opinion, Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez wrote:
“Never before have we seen any behavior like this, nor do we hope to ever see such behavior again,. As the circumstances of this case perfectly illustrate, the potential for abuse in the absence of an explicit prohibition on nonsecurity use of stun belts exists and must be deterred. We must speak out against it, 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.”
The court noted what should have been obvious to Gallagher that “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.”
I previously wrote a column criticizing the increasing use of stun belts. My objections includes a prior similar case:
In June 1998, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani ordered a deputy to shock a defendant, Ronnie Hawkins, after he repeatedly interrupted her. A judicial review board refused to impose disciplinary action on the judge, who continues to try cases in California.
Likewise, Gallagher has been allowed to continue as a judge despite this barbaric conduct. Gallagher ordered a physical assault on a defendant who was not presenting any risk of violence or threatening anyone in the courtroom. He had no authority to use a security device to induce better conduct or more complete answers. If a police officer took such actions in an interrogation, he would have been criminally charged. Why should a judge be able to avoid such a charge or even removal over such conduct?