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Stun Belt Use Leads to Texas Retrial

A judge is responsible for a conviction being overturned by a Texas appeals court ruling. In 2016, Judge George Gallagher order a stun belt to be placed around the ankle of Terry Lee Morris on the first day of his trial. When Morris objected to the stun belt a verbal argument ensued, with Morris saying he was going to sue both the judge and his lawyer, Bill Ray.

It was at this point that Judge Gallagher excused the jury from the court, while warning Morris about “any additional outbursts.”

Morris apparently did not heed the warning. Judge Gallagher would ask a deputy to shock Morris three times. Neither his counsel, nor anyone remaining in the room, would object to the treatment at the time.

Texas appeals court rejected judge’s claims that defendant was dangerous

In defending his actions, Judge Gallagher claimed that Morris represented a clear threat to everyone remaining in the court room.  Allegedly, Morris could have used a video monitor near him to endanger anyone near him.

The monitor in question weighs an impressive 200 pounds, indeed a lethal implement if it can be wielded as such. However, the monitor was mounted on a wall. Morris would have had to retrieve the monitor while dealing with all the other security measures in place… including the stun belt.

Gallagher’s claim was backed up by Morris’ own attorney. In a statement to Texas Lawyer, Bill Ray says that his client was a “loaded cannon ready to go off.” He goes on to say that the stun belt did not work, which could then suggest that he believes his client was acting out in court.

The Texas Eighth Court of Appeals did not buy into this story.

Enforcing decorum

To anyone who has been part of a court case, the importance of decorum cannot be stressed. Not only does it ensure the smoothness of the proceedings, it is also a way to assure the safety of everyone in the room.

In the transcript between Morris and Gallagher, there is no mention of an immediate physical risk to anyone in the room. Gallagher clearly ordered the use of the collar in response to Morris refusing the provide satisfactory answers to questions.

In the Texas appeals court decision, Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez described Gallagher’s action as a “disproportionate response”.

“A stun belt,” said Justice Rodriguez “is a device meant to enforce physical safety; it is not an operant conditioning collar meant to punish a defendant until he obeys a judge’s whim.”

Morris now awaits a re-trial in the wake of the appeals court decision

Fearing similar treatment for the duration of the trial, Terry Lee Morris did not return to court for the length of his trial or sentencing. The appeals court found this to be a violation of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.

The amendment begins by saying defendants have a right to speedy and fair trials. Something that gets quoted less often is that the defendant has a right to be confronted by witnesses, and to call for witnesses in their defense. The Texas appeals court found that because Morris was not compelled to return to court after his first day, he was denied his Constitutional rights.

The trial would proceed without Morris. He would be found guilty of soliciting sexual acts from a 15-year-old girl. The circumstances of his treatment, however, lead to the appeals court throwing out the verdict.

It is not the first time a verdict has been challenged due to a stun belt. In 2017, the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a death sentence for a triple-murderer. In the opinion on the case, they stated that the presence of the belt “contaminated” the trial’s penalty phase.

The stun belt has been controversial for nearly two decades

In 1998, Ronnie Hawkins was shocked by a stun belt in a Los Angeles County courtroom. Much like 2016 incident in Texas, the stun belt was used specifically to silence the defendant. The debate surrounding the ethics of such devices centers on when the belt can or should be used. Most people agree that a violent individual posing an immediate threat constitutes as a “good use” of the devices.

But as was on display in 1998, and in 2016, a judge can order their bailiffs to employ the belt with a simple command if they feel ‘decorum’ is at stake. Ronnie Hawkins own record of violent behavior leading up to the trial justified placing the belt on him before his court appearance. However, his behavior in the court itself was anything but violent.

California’s Supreme Court sought to greatly limit the use of the stun belt in court in 2002. The use of the devices persists nationwide to this day, but not without incident. Advocates claim that they are a humane way to control potentially dangerous individuals in court, calling them a non-lethal solution that places negligible risk to all involved. Critics point to cases like Terry Lee Morris, where the stun belt was used to punish a man for speaking out of turn. There are also medical studies that show that a stun belt can do more than exacerbate existing medical conditions.

The criminal justice system is a complex thing, and many factors must work in concert to achieve desired results. Whether or not a stun belt can be justified is still up for debate, but their presence and use presents a unique challenge to the system.

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