Diary

I'm With The Texas Judge On This One

Only in Texas. I can see why the judge did it, but there are other punishments when a defendant refuses to answer a basic question.

In Tarrant County, 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 2016 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 stunned the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, too. It has now thrown out Morris’s conviction on the grounds that the shocks ordered by State District Judge George Gallagher, and Morris’s 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 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.”

While Ms. Rodriguez’s dicta was colorful and kind of funny, Mr. Gallagher was only trying to get the defendant to say “guilty” or “not guilty”, so I think the Texas Court of Appeals overreacted by throwing out the conviction. I can understand the urge to zap a defendant who behaves like a horse’s ass, but the judge could’ve just thrown the guy in jail for a week or two on contempt charges or, better yet, he could’ve ordered the defendant to watch a scene from My Cousin Vinny, over and over for a few hours, on top of spending time in jail for being a dick.