Texas jumps off the national map in many ways, good and not so good. Not so good includes the international notoriety of a hyperactive death chamber.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court effectively halted capital punishment in September, Texas carried out seven of the 10 most recent executions nationwide.
That very last execution brings us a finalist for Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The newspaper's distinction is bestowed for better or worse; this one goes in the latter column.
Judge Keller will forever be associated with four callous words that make a caricature of Texas justice: "We close at 5."
That was the judge's harsh response to defense attorneys who were trying to file a last-minute appeal in the case of convicted killer Michael Richard.
The courthouse shut its doors based on the judge's order on the afternoon of Sept. 25, and lethal drugs were pumped into the condemned man's veins a short time later. Legal experts say his appeal had a good chance of prevailing, since the Supreme Court, hours earlier, held up a Kentucky execution to weigh the constitutionality of lethal injection.
"We close at 5" can be disappointing news from an auto mechanic or bank clerk. But when it comes from the state's highest criminal jurist in a life-or-death case, it sounds downright ... criminal. Worse, other judges were working late that night and could have reviewed the appeal.
There was no doubt of Mr. Richard's guilt in the fatal shooting of a 53-year-old nurse and mother of seven in the Houston area. Death penalty supporters may think he got his just deserts, but that's not the point. The Supreme Court had clearly signaled concern over the constitutionality of lethal injection, and many states had already shut down their execution chambers in deference to the court's consideration of the matter.
Texas' brand of justice appeared stubbornly out of step. Two days after the Richard execution, Judge Keller's court decided that yet another death sentence could be carried out, this one in a Dallas County case. The Supreme Court blocked that execution, and the Texas court finally got the message and put the death chamber on hold.
Judge Keller hails from the Dallas family of Keller's Hamburgers fame. Since first elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, she has cultivated a distinct profile – tough on crime. The close-at-5 decision in the Richard execution, however, only perpetuates the notion that Texas is indifferent to justice.
Coming Friday: No. 7.
8. Sharon Keller
Judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
9. Carol Wise
Researcher at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children
10. Bill Mullican
State's water planner