‘Hit him again’: Judge repeatedly orders man shocked in court, forces new trial

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Caption
Judge Orders Man Shocked Repeatedly In Court, Forces New Trial

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A Texas appeals court has overturned the guilty verdict of a man who a judge ordered shocked repeatedly with a stun belt during his trial.

Terry Lee Morris, who was serving 60 years in prison for soliciting the sexual performance of a child, has been granted a new trial in the case, according to Texas Lawyer. Morris' original trial was before 396th State District Judge George Gallagher.

Gallagher declined to comment when contacted by The Washington Post.

Gallagher's actions against Morris, 54, are laid out in the transcripts from his 2016 criminal trial in Fort Worth, according to the opinion issued Feb. 28 by Texas' 8th District Court of Appeals.

"The trial transcript clearly shows that the trial judge, during a heated exchange with the defendant outside the presence of the jury, ordered his bailiff to electrocute the defendant three times with a stun belt -- not for legitimate security purposes, but solely as a show of the court's power as the defendant asked the court to stop 'torturing' him," the opinion written by Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez stated.

A stun belt is a device that is placed around a defendant’s leg or ankle during transport to and from court, as well as during a trial. If the defendant becomes violent or otherwise out of control, a shock can be delivered to subdue the person.

Each shock delivered in the incident with Morris sent 50,000 volts through his body, Rodriguez wrote.

Terry Lee Morris
Caption
Terry Lee Morris

Credit: (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Credit: (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Morris was then removed from the courtroom. He was offered the opportunity to return several times during his one-day trial, but told his trial lawyer he was afraid to do so.

Because of Gallagher’s actions, which the court found violated Morris’s constitutional rights, Morris’ guilty verdict was overturned and his case remanded for a new trial.

"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," Rodriguez wrote. "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."

The issue began even before testimony in Morris’ trial began, when Gallagher asked Morris for his plea in the case. Morris was accused of soliciting nude photos from the 15-year-old daughter of an ex-girlfriend.

Morris refused to answer, instead pointing out that he had a pending federal lawsuit against both Gallagher and his own attorney, Fort Worth defense lawyer Bill Ray. The judge ordered the jury out of the courtroom and warned Morris about further outbursts.

Gallagher told Morris that any additional disruptions would lead either to him being removed from the courtroom or to use of the shock belt on him.

“All right, sir,” Morris said.

“Now, are you going to follow the rules?” Gallagher asked.

“Sir, I’ve asked you to recuse yourself,” Morris replied.

“Are you going to follow the rules?” Gallagher asked again.

“I have a lawsuit pending against you,” Morris said.

“Hit him,” Gallagher told the bailiff, who complied.

After the first shock, Gallagher again asked if Morris would behave. The defendant responded by telling Gallagher he has a history of mental illness and was a client of MHMR (My Health My Resources), a community mental health center.

"Hit him again," Gallagher told the bailiff, according to the appeals court.

Read the entire appeals court ruling below.

After the second shock, Gallagher continued asking Morris the same questions, while Morris accused the judge of torturing him. Morris said he was firing his attorney, at which point Gallagher began asking him about invoking his right to represent himself.

Morris continued to talk about his lawsuits and his mental health history, telling Gallagher he was "wrong for doing this" and that he was "torturing an MHMR client," the transcripts showed.

“I take 17 pills a day for my disability, my MHMR disability,” Morris said. “You have no right to do this.”

“Are you going to behave?” Gallagher asked.

“I have the right …,” Morris said.

“You have no right to disrespect the Court,” Gallagher said.

The dispute continued as Morris again said he was firing his lawyer and the judge stating that they can discuss that decision. When he asked Morris how far he went in school, Morris said that was “beside the point.”

“There’s serious allegations that I have in the United States District Court against this man. No one wants to be represented by someone they have a lawsuit against,” Morris said. “No one wants a judge to preside over their case who the lawsuit is against. No one wants to be tortured because they’re an MHMR defendant, prevented from saying anything in the Court in front of the jury pertaining to any such cases such as the grand jury ….”

“Mr. Morris, are you going to answer my question?” Gallagher asked.

“I’ve asked you, I’ve filed a motion asking …,” Morris began.

“Would you hit him again?” Gallagher asked the bailiff.

“… to recuse yourself from the bench off my case,” Morris finished.

Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher presides during the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's pretrial hearing at the Collin County courthouse on Dec. 1, 2015, in McKinney, Texas.
Caption
Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher presides during the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's pretrial hearing at the Collin County courthouse on Dec. 1, 2015, in McKinney, Texas.

Credit: (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News Via AP, Pool)

Credit: (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News Via AP, Pool)

When Morris continued to talk after the third shock, Gallagher had him physically removed from the courtroom, the appeals court opinion stated. The judge found that Morris' demeanor was "sufficient enough to have the defendant removed from trial and he will not be present in the courtroom until he continues, until he exhibits appropriate behavior or demeanor or wishes to come back into the courtroom," the transcripts said.

Neither the prosecutors nor the defense attorney objected to Gallagher’s actions, and the trial proceeded without Morris.

The appeals court pointed out that Gallagher later read into the record his reasons for using the shock belt, which included what he called Morris’ increasing agitation.

"Let the record reflect that within about five feet from where the defendant was standing there is an 87-inch electronic Smart Board that weighs over 200 pounds that is readily within reach of the defendant, that had he grabbed that board, could have brought it over to the counsel table to affect the safety of the lawyers, Mr. Ray and the two prosecutors that would be sitting within anywhere from three to five feet if he went the other way," Gallagher said. "It was based on the totality of his continuing escalation and his movements that the Court ordered that the shock belt be initiated. It was done for the safety of the lawyers and all of the participants."

Morris returned to court only briefly during the penalty phase after the jury found him guilty.

Explore>> Read more trending news

In ordering the reversal of Morris’ conviction, the appeals court determined that, despite the statement Gallagher read into the trial record, the judge had used the stun belt to enforce his standard of decorum for his courtroom, not for security purposes.

"Never before have we seen behavior like this, nor do we hope to ever see such behavior again," Rodriguez wrote in the court's opinion. "As the circumstances of this case perfectly illustrate, the potential for abuse in the absence of an explicit prohibition on non-security use of stun belts exists and must be deterred."

“We must speak out against it, lest we allow practices like these to affront the very dignity of the proceedings we seek to protect and lead our courts to drift from justice into barbarism.”

Texas Lawyer reported that a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Morris, declined to comment on the reversal.

Ray said he did not object to Gallagher’s use of the stun belt on Morris because his client was like a “loaded cannon ready to go off” that day, the magazine said.

"That guy is out of control," Ray said. "I was standing right next to him and I was scared of him. And I've stood next to some pretty nasty people."

Lisa Mullen, the attorney who represented Morris on appeal, said she thought it was a “beautifully written” opinion.

"I was so impressed and proud of our appellate system for standing up for what's right," Mullen told Texas Lawyer.

She did say, however, that she has known Gallagher for decades and that he has always been fair in her dealings with him.

"I think this was just an aberration and a horrific one," Mullen said.

About the Author