By Christopher Zoukis
Terry Lee Morris, an inmate in a Huntsville, Texas prison, will be getting a new trial, and it’s very likely he’ll find it more to his liking, whatever the outcome. That’s because during his last trial in 2014, on charges of soliciting sex from a 15-year-old girl, the presiding state district court judge three times in quick succession ordered the bailiff to give Morris 50,000-volt or greater electric shocks.
Stun belts, devices capable of delivering the large, painful shocks – which are employed as a precaution against a defendant threatening violence or trying to escape – had been attached to Morris’s legs. They were activated early in the trial, the first time when Morris, who had sued his defense counsel and asked presiding Tarrant County district judge George Gallagher to recuse himself, refused to enter a plea and spoke volubly about his objections to the trial.
Judge Gallagher, who has been on the local bench since 2000, asked Morris if he was going to refrain from further “outbursts,” and when Morris didn’t answer, the judge order the bailiff to activate the shock-delivering device. The second shock came soon thereafter, when the judge once more asked Morris if he would comply with courtroom decorum, and Morris answered by telling the judge that he was receiving treatment for his mental health. Not long after that, as Morris was complaining he was being “tortured” for trying to remove his lawyer from the case, Judge Gallagher ordered the bailiff to give Morris a third shock.
After that, Morris was taken out of the courtroom. The experience apparently unsettled him so much he chose not to attend the rest of the guilt phase of his trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, taking only 25 minutes to deliberate, Judge Gallagher sentenced Morris to a 60-year prison term, which he appealed. (The inmate was already serving a 12-year term for a separate 1992 conviction for injuring a child.)
On February 28, a three-judge panel of a Texas appeals court in El Paso unanimously overturned Morris’ most recent conviction, and ordered he receive a new trial in Judge Gallagher’s court. The appeals court opinion began by noting trial judges have wide discretion in dealing with disruptive criminal defendants, to maintain decorum and control court proceedings. But, it added, judges’ discretion “has its limits,” which Gallagher exceeded in Morris’ trial. Despite what it called the judge’s understandable “frustration with an obstreperous defendant,” it faulted his “disproportionate response.” It added trial judges cannot “use stun belts to enforce decorum.”
The appeals court added that a stun belt is “meant to ensure physical safety,” not a device to “punish a defendant until he obeys a judge’s whim.” The appeals court decision even suggested an explicit rule was needed to prohibit use of stun belts for non-security purposes. The appellate decision also observed that, apart from their physical effects, shocks from stun belts can also effects on the wearer’s mind, increasing anxiety and perhaps harming cognitive ability. That, and the likelihood that Morris was too intimidated to return to the court after being taken out of the courtroom, may also have violated Morris’ Sixth Amendment constitutional right to confront witnesses testifying against him, the appellate decision also stated.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.