Federal prosecutors investigated and declined to charge a Tarrant County state district judge who ordered a bailiff to electrically stun a defendant three times during a trial in 2016.
A reference to the federal criminal civil rights violation investigation and charging decision is contained in a footnote on a Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct document describing its conclusions in a complaint case that involved Judge George Gallagher in the 396th Judicial District Court.
The document, which was prepared last month by the commission, refers to a U.S. Department of Justice review of Gallagher connected to his stun orders during the trial of Terry Morris in a sexual performance by a child case.
On May 26, the commission received notification from the Department of Justice that it would not pursue charges against Gallagher, according to the footnote in the commission document.
The U.S. Attorney Office for the Northern District of Texas does not publicly confirm or deny the existence of an investigation that does not yield a charge, a spokesperson said.
The commission’s members voted on Aug. 19 to issue to Gallagher a public warning “for engaging in willful conduct that cast public discredit upon the judiciary and the administration of justice in violation” of the Texas constitution.
Stun belts at the legs of defendants are at times used when a defendant is violent or attempts to escape a courtroom. In the Morris case, the Eighth Court of Appeals found that Gallagher used the ordered jolts as a punitive measure after Morris failed to answer the judge’s questions as he expected. The appeals court overturned the conviction. Morris pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography when he was again indicted in October 2019.
After the stun orders, Morris did not attend the remainder of his trial. He appealed his conviction and alleged that Gallagher violated his constitutional rights by repeatedly ordering stuns for failing to answer questions while Morris showed no signs of becoming violent or being a flight risk.
“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 Rodriguez wrote in the court’s opinion.
Gallagher ordered a bailiff to stun Morris on the first day of his trial. When Gallagher asked Morris for his plea, Morris declined to answer.
“Sir, before I say that, I have the right to make a defense,” Morris responded, according to the appellate court.
Morris told the judge he had a pending lawsuit against his attorney.
Gallagher became irritated and warned Morris about further “outbursts.”
“Mr. Morris, I am giving you one warning,” Gallagher said outside the presence of the jury, according to the appellate court. “You will not make any additional outbursts like that, because two things will happen: No. 1, I will either remove you from the courtroom or I will use the shock belt on you.”
Morris answered, “All right, sir.”
When Morris continued, Gallagher instructed the bailiff to activate the stun belts around Morris’ legs.
Gallagher asked Morris twice more if he was going to follow the rules. When Morris did not provide a plea, Gallagher said to the bailiff, “Hit him,” according to the appellate ruling.
The bailiff pressed a button that was to send the electric shock through Morris’ body. Gallagher asked him again if he was going to comply. Morris said that he had a history of mental illness. Gallagher ordered another shock.
“Hit him again,” the judge said.
When Morris said that he was being “tortured” for seeking a recusal, Gallagher, according to the appellate court, ordered the bailiff to stun the defendant once more: “Would you hit him again?”
Gallagher appeared before the commission on Aug. 11 and testified that he ordered Morris stunned because the defendant began moving from behind the defense counsel table into the court well and posed a security threat to other people in the courtroom.
“Judge Gallagher acknowledged the contemporaneous record of the proceeding does not reflect this fact but pointed to a statement he made later that day for purposes of the record which details the threat Mr. Morris posed at the time the stun cuff was activated.,” according to the commission public warning document.
Seven people who were in court on the day Gallagher ordered Morris stunned supported the judge’s version of events in written accounts that Gallagher submitted, according to the commission.
Billy Ray, Morris’s attorney at the 2016 trial, told Texas Lawyer, a legal affairs publication, that he did not believe that the stun belts used with Morris functioned and that Morris was not stunned.
“That was the second trial I had where they didn’t hook the shock collar up properly. I know it says he was getting electrocuted, but they didn’t shock him,” Ray said.
The commission found that the activation of the stun cuff injured Morris.