U.S. News

Questions raised after shock belt used at Texas murder trial

TEXARKANA, Texas (Reuters) - A potential death penalty trial in East Texas is set to resume on Monday after it was put on hold when a judge was said by a TV station to have had a shock belt used on the defendant for misbehaving.

James Calvert, 45, of Tyler, Texas, is on trial in Smith County, where prosecutors allege he beat and fatally shot his former wife at her home and abducted their 4-year-old son in October 2012.

Judge Jack Skeen allowed Calvert to defend himself, over objections from attorneys specializing in the death penalty, at the outset of the trial in August. Skeen also ordered a shock device be placed on Calvert for security reasons because of his unpredictable behavior, legal officials said.

On Sept. 15, when Calvert did not stand up at the judge’s request, Skeen had an electric shock administered on the defendant that caused him to twist in pain before the jury, local TV broadcaster KLTV reported.

“Calvert refuses to stand up when talking to judge. Shock belt is administered, Calvert scream ‘ahh’ for about 5 seconds,” Cody Lillich, a KLTV reporter, tweeted from the courtroom.

After Calvert was shocked, Skeen allowed public defenders who had been monitoring the hearings to defend him, court officials said. The trial is set to resume on Monday after it was put on recess on Sept. 16.

The judge has issued a gag order in the case, a court official said.

Skeen did not respond to requests for comment.

Legal experts said the judge’s conduct could open the door to appeals if Calvert is convicted and possible sanction for abuse of the shock belt, which is to be used only if the defendant poses an immediate security risk.

“This is just a travesty of justice as far as I’m concerned. This man is facing an execution if he’s convicted,” said George Parnham, a Houston lawyer who represented Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children and was found innocent by reason of insanity on appeal.

Skeen, who was Smith County district attorney before he was elected a district judge, has had no disciplinary sanctions, according to the Texas Bar Association.

Calvert has been disruptive because of mental illness, making it all the more reasonable to have had a lawyer represent him from the start, said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which has been monitoring the case.

“I know of no death penalty trial in the state of Texas where the defendant has been able to represent himself who got life in prison,” Kase said.

It is common to have a shock belt on defendants at jury trials for safety, and the device is less obvious than handcuffs or leg irons, Smith County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Gary Middleton said.

“It’s really pretty effective when we use it. It’s kind of like a Taser,” he said.

Reporting by Lisa Bose McDermott; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mohammad Zargham