To Control Inmates, Some Counties Try the Threat of Electric Shock
by Jacey Fortin
Many of the electric shock devices used by law enforcement are meant to be out of sight, but every once in a while comes a reminder that their use is widespread.
This time, it happened in Fort Worth. A conviction there was overturned last month because the judge had ordered the defendant to be electrically shocked by a device on his ankle three times during his trial, court documents show.
These devices have been referred to as stun belts, shock belts or stun cuffs. Some of the devices, which are used to restrain inmates, are strapped to the ankle and others around the torso. When triggered, the shock is comparable to that of a Taser; it is usually enough to knock a person to the ground, sometimes prompting involuntary defecation or urination.
Supporters of the devices say they deter inmates from attempting violence or escape. Ideally, the devices are strapped on, the inmates behave and no jolts are needed.
But the activation of a stun device depends on who controls it. That, critics say, leads to episodes in which people can be shocked for nothing more than talking back to an official.
‘Hit him again’
In the Tarrant County courtroom in Fort Worth in 2014, Terry Lee Morris was on trial, charged with soliciting explicit photographs from a 15-year-old girl. When Judge George Gallagher asked him to enter a plea, he did not, and said he wanted the judge to recuse himself.
Mr. Morris referred to the device on his ankle, and the judge asked jurors to leave the room before warning him that it might be used if his “outbursts” continued.
Mr. Morris again asked the judge to recuse himself, and Judge Gallagher told a deputy to “hit him” by remotely triggering the device, delivering a jolt of electricity.
The judge then asked Mr. Morris if he would “behave.” Mr. Morris replied that he had a history of mental illness. “Hit him again,” the judge said.
Mr. Morris continued to call for the judge’s recusal, as well as the dismissal of his own defense lawyer. He was shocked one more time before being escorted from the courtroom.
Mr. Morris was eventually convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Last month, the Court of Appeals of the Eighth District of Texas threw out the conviction and called for a retrial “based on the trial court’s improper use of the stun belt,” according to the opinion from Justice Yvonne T. Rodriguez, whose ruling included transcripts from the trial.
She wrote that judges can exercise discretion “when challenging defendants breach decorum and threaten to tarnish proceedings with bad behavior.”
“But discretion has its limits,” she added.
Judge Gallagher said he could not comment on the case because of judicial ethics and Mr. Morris’s defense lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
‘A way not to have that chain between their legs’
Because it often falls to individual counties to buy electric shock devices, it is difficult to track how many are in use in the United States.
Myers Enterprises in Denver sells a version that wraps around the ankle and can deliver a 50,000-volt shock, said Brad Myers, who started selling them in 2006. He said the majority of his orders come from county authorities, and demand has grown steadily over the last four years. He estimated that he now sells between 20 and 100 each month.
Certain states are better for business than others, he said, adding: “The places throughout the South, they’re good: Texas, Georgia, Florida. But you get into the more liberal states — New York, Maine, all those up in the Northeast — they are not big purchasers.”
One of his customers was the sheriff’s office in Renville County, Minn. In an interview, Sheriff Scott D. Hable said stun cuffs were useful in courtrooms because shackles make a defendant look guilty.
“Sometimes, especially during a jury trial, the judges won’t allow handcuffs and shackles because of the image that portrays to a jury,” he said. “The stun cuff was a way not to have that chain between their legs.”
Sheriff Hable said he did not recall his deputies ever using the cuff to shock anyone, adding that they gradually stopped using it, preferring not to rely too heavily on a mechanical device. “I think the concept was fine,” he added. “I think its power as a deterrent was appropriate.”
‘It is torture just to attach it’
But critics of the devices have compared them to instruments of torture, even if they are not activated.
“It is torture just to attach it,” said Bernie Horn, the senior director for policy and communications at the Public Leadership Institute, a progressive advocacy group. “You or I or anyone would act differently, and probably seem more guilty looking, if we knew we could be shocked at any moment.”
International organizations including the United Nations and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture have advised against the use of stun belts. Amnesty International has called for them to be prohibited.
Because stun cuffs are meant to be more discreet than shackles, people often do not know they are there until it becomes apparent.
In one such instance in 2014, a judge in Maryland ordered a deputy to shock a defendant who continued to talk after being told to stop. In a video of the episode obtained by ABC News, the defendant could be seen falling to the floor, screaming.
In 2016, activists in Tulsa, Okla., objected to stun cuffs after one was spotted on a defendant in a high-profile murder case. Last month, The Gazette Xtra in Janesville, Wis., reported on the use of stun cuffs after reporters saw the outline of the device under a defendant’s pant leg.
“It sure seems like there is widespread use,” Mr. Horn said. “And average people don’t know anything about it.”