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Shocking! Judges Can't Electrocute People for Not Answering Questions

'Shocking' barely describes the treatment of Terry Lee Morris.

When he refused to answer questions at his criminal trial, Judge George Gallagher ordered deputies to jolt the man with 50,000 volts of electricity. They administered the punishment through a shock belt, which is supposed to be used for security purposes.

Morris was convicted of soliciting sex from a minor and sentenced to 60 years in prison, but a federal appeals court reversed and remanded for a new trial. In a classic understatement, the appeals panel said it had "grave doubts" about whether the man was treated fairly.

Shocking Treatment

The Texas Court of Appeals for the Eighth District compared the courtroom electrocutions to a "Skinner Box." The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner might have been shocked at the comparison.

Skinner said that behavior could be modified through conditioning. A "Skinner Box" taught animals to perform certain tasks in exchange for food.

Judge Gallagher's "conditioning" was entirely different. It was more akin to electro shock therapy, a tortuous treatment for epileptics, schizophrenics and others.

"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," Justice Yvonne Rodriguez wrote for the Texas court. "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."

"Discretion Has Its Limits"

Finding the trial judge abused his discretion, the appeals court reversed. The trial really fell apart when the defendant asked the judge to recuse himself.

Defendant: Sir, I've asked you to recuse yourself.

Court: Now, are you going to follow the rules?

Defendant: I have a lawsuit pending against you.

Court: Hit him.

At least the trial judge maintained some decorum by electrocuting the defendant -- three times -- outside the presence of the jury. However, they could have heard him screaming as he begged the court to stop torturing him.

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