No, judges, you may not shock defendants at will

Judge George Gallagher talks with a defense attorney during a murder trial in the 396th Criminal District Court, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Just when you think you’ve plumbed the depths of the criminal justice system’s horrors, Texas comes through with something worse. In this case, 396th State District Judge George Gallagher decided to use a defendant’s high-voltage stun belt to enforce decorum in the absence of security concerns.

In Tarrant County, Tex., 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.

Each shock could have caused permanent physical injury to Morris; no wonder the experience had psychological effects.

The stun belt works in some ways like a shock collar used to train dogs. Activated by a button on a remote control, the stun belt delivers an eight-second, 50,000-volt shock to the person wearing it, which immobilizes him so that bailiffs can swiftly neutralize any security threats. When activated, the stun belt can cause the person to seize, suffer heart irregularities, urinate or defecate and suffer possibly crippling anxiety as a result of fear of the shocks.

The stun belt can also be very painful. When Montgomery County, Md., purchased three of the devices in 1998, a sheriff’s sergeant who was jolted as part of his training described the feeling to The Washington Post like this: “If you had nine-inch nails and you tried to rip my sides out and then you put a heat lamp on me.”

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