Monday, October 22, 2007

Sharon Keller's controversial rulings

R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle has compiled a list of Sharon Keller's controversial rulings.

• Keller was in the court majority that allowed the 2003 execution of Leonard Rojas to go forward despite a showing that his lawyer had just two years of experience, had his law license suspended three times and had missed a deadline for federal appeals because of bipolar disorder.

Three judges wrote a dissenting opinion, saying: "A capital murder habeas proceeding is no place for a green attorney with multiple suspensions from the State Bar."

Keller responded by saying the lawyer only needed to be competent when appointed. She said the fact the Bar had probated the lawyer's suspensions showed that the Bar "still found counsel to be competent to practice law."

In wording that echoes Keller's actions in the Richard case, she complained that Rojas' complaints of incompetent counsel "were not brought to this court's attention until mere days before applicant's scheduled execution."

• Prior to the Richard execution, the biggest controversy of her tenure on the court came when Keller wrote an opinion saying DNA evidence did not prove convicted rapist Roy Criner was innocent even though the semen in his alleged victim was not his. Keller said Criner could have worn a condom during the rape, a theory that was not raised by the prosecution in his trial.
On the PBS program Frontline, Keller was asked how Criner could prove his innocence. She replied: "I don't know."

Fellow appeals court Judge Tom Price told Texas Lawyer that Keller had turned the court into a "national laughingstock." Price ran against Keller in 2000 and 2006, losing both times. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

Further DNA testing proved saliva on a cigarette butt at the scene of Criner's alleged rape belonged to another man, whose DNA also matched the semen. Criner received a pardon from then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.

• In 1996, Keller wrote an opinion that death row inmate Cesar Fierro received a fair trial despite the fact his confession was coerced by threats that Mexican police would torture his parents. After learning of the coerced confession, the prosecutor and judge in the case called for Fierro to receive a new trial.
"We conclude that the applicant's due process rights were violated," Keller wrote for the court. "But, because we conclude that the error was harmless, we deny relief."

Keller, writing for the court majority, said Fierro could have been convicted on a co-defendant's testimony alone.

Keller's legal opinions have not been the only source of controversy for the jurist.

• Other members of the court in 2002 stripped Keller of the sole authority to hand out grant money after she gave $225,000 to a little-known legal organization to provide legal training for lawyers who represent poor clients. The group was headed by a one-time staff attorney at the court.

• Keller, to help balance the state budget, in 2003 announced a cut of $860,000 from a fund that pays for lawyers who represent death row inmates. Keller said the money would not be needed before the next budget cycle.

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