FORT WORTH -- State District Judge George Gallagher of Tarrant County told a bailiff on three occasions to punish an uncooperative defendant with electric shocks, and now the sex offender's conviction has been overturned and a new trial ordered.
Stun belts can be strapped around the legs of some defendants and used to deliver thousands of volts of electric shock in the instance a defendant turns violent or attempts to escape the courtroom. However, in the case of Terry Lee Morris, who was convicted in 2014 of charges of soliciting sexual performance from a 15-year-old girl, an appeals court found that Gallagher used electric shocks as punishment after Morris failed to answer the judge's questions properly.
Gallagher, the District 396 judge since 2000, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman with the Tarrant County district attorney's office.
After enduring the 50,000-volt shocks, Morris was apparently too scared to return to the courtroom and actually did not attend the remainder of his own trial. He appealed his conviction, alleging Gallagher violated his constitutional rights by repeatedly shocking him for failing to answer questions while showing no signs of becoming violent or being a flight risk.
The Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso handed down its ruling on Feb. 28. Texas Lawyer first reported the ruling Tuesday. The ruling said judges are not permitted to shock defendants who won't answer questions or don't 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," Rodriguez wrote.
Miller, 54, remains in the Wynne Unit in Huntsville. Besides the conviction that was overturned, he was convicted in 1992 of causing bodily injury to a child and sentenced to 12 years to prison.
His attorney at the 2014 trial, Billy Ray, told the Star-Telegram that he was "scared to death of what Morris might do. I was scared of the way he was acting.
"But I felt kind of sorry for Morris," Ray said. "I was trying to defuse Morris instead of telling the judge what to do. I felt that if I could have gotten Morris calmed down we could get through this thing."
Morris had filed a lawsuit against Ray and wanted him to recuse himself as his attorney.
"Morris appeared to hate me but I think really he hated the situation more," Ray said. "But you can't leave a defendant just because you believe he hates you; that's not the way it works. I was his second or third lawyer."