A Texas Judge Used a Barbaric Courtroom Punishment on a Defendant Who Pleaded the Fifth

Electric shocks are common practice in Tarrant County courts.

Photo Credit: Freedomz / Shutterstock

Texas’ Eighth Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for convicted sex offender Terry Lee Morris after the court found that the sentencing judge shocked the defendant with a powerful stun belt for pleading the Fifth.

Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher shocked Morris three times “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 the Washington Post. “It scared him so much that Morris never returned for the remainder of his trial and almost all of his sentencing hearing.”

The appeals court determined that Gallagher’s misuse of the device denied Morris his Sixth Amendment right to be present at his own trial and to confront a witness.

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“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 wrote in the appeals court’s decision. “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 first stun belts, developed and instituted in the early- to mid-1990s, were called Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology, and were strapped to the defendant’s torso above the kidneys. The belts were replaced by devices that strap onto the arm or leg, under the wearer’s clothes. The devices deliver eight-second, 50,000-volt shocks and can potentially cause serious physical harm.

Texas prison guard Harry Landis died of cardiac dysrhythmia after he was twice shocked by a 45,000-volt electrified riot shield during a 1996 training session. Use of the shields in Texas prisons was subsequently discontinued, though stun belts are still being used in Texas courts.

Even states considered to be relatively progressive employed the device liberally well into the 21st century. Only in 2009 did New York begin requiring judges to cite a security concern before making a defendant wear a stun belt.

The California Supreme Court effectively banned the practice in 2002. “The shock knocks the wearer to the ground, causes intense writhing and shaking, and may result in uncontrolled defecation and urination as well as serious medical injury,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in the court’s broad opinion, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But according to a 1998 report by late Texas attorney Shelley Alisa Nieto Dahlberg in the St. Mary’s Law Journal, which George cited in the court’s decision, Stun-Tech (now StunTronics) marketed the belts as psychological tools.

“Stun-Tech argues that the belt acts more as a deterrent rather than a means of actual punishment,” Dahlberg writes, “because of the tremendous amount of anxiety that results from wearing a belt that packs a 50,000-volt punch.”

StunTronics, based in Cleveland, continues to sell stun belts that, according to its website, “have been used on tens of thousands of prisoners nationwide by local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service.”

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Brendan Gauthier is a freelance writer and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University.