Sunday, October 07, 2007

Things to remember about executions

Thats title of Bob Ray Sander's great column on Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Court of Criminal Appeals, Judge Sharon Keller.

Remember the names Michael Richard and Carlton Turner.

One is dead; one is alive.

Both had been given the death penalty in Texas and were scheduled to die within two days of each other last month.

Again, one is dead; one is alive.

Their cases once again prove the arbitrariness of the death penalty in Texas and the pure absurdity of capital punishment in the United States.

While you concentrate on those two names -- Michael Richard and Carlton Turner -- also remember the name of Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Keller proves how unjust (or at the very least how insensitive) the highest criminal court in the state can be.

And once again, Lady Justice ought to be hiding her head in shame in the Lone Star State.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Sept. 25 that it would take a Kentucky case to decide if the method of lethal injection used by many states, including Texas, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

It seemed only natural that states that use that form of punishment would call a moratorium on executions until the high court rules on the matter. But not Texas, which already had put 26 people to death this year.

On the very evening of the Supreme Court's announcement, the state executed Richard after one of the most surreal actions by an appeals court justice that one could imagine.

Richard's lawyers were busy preparing an appeal for their client when their computer crashed late that afternoon. They called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, explained the problem and requested that the court stay open long enough for them to file the motion, according to The Associated Press.

"We close at 5," Keller responded, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

"I got on a phone call shortly before 5 and was told that the defendant had asked us to stay open. I asked why, and no reason was given," the judge told the newspaper.

It already was close to 5 p.m., so there was no time for the attorneys to meet that deadline.

Keller reportedly made her decision without consulting any other judge -- and at least three were still in the building after 5 p.m. that day -- and not bothering to inform the one judge who was assigned to review Richard's case.

Judge Cheryl Johnson, who was assigned to handle Richard's motions, was quoted as being very angry that she had not been notified that the chief judge basically was locking the doors on a case in which attorneys were trying to file a last-minute appeal.

The Texas appeals court didn't rule on the case at all that evening, so the Supreme Court couldn't step in and issue a stay of execution for Richard.

The state killed him.

Two days later, however, after the Texas court had refused to grant a stay in Turner's case, the Supreme Court stopped his execution that Thursday evening. Turner, who had admitted killing his parents in Irving in 1988, was lucky that his appeal got to Austin before the doors closed at 5.

Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals did grant a stay for another Death Row inmate, Heliberto Chi, convicted of the 2001 murder of an Arlington man. He was set to be executed Wednesday.

This execution business is out of whack in Texas. Killing a man in the name of the state should not depend on luck or an impatient appeals judge who is more interested in when the courthouse closes than in an individual's life.

Texas has three other executions scheduled between now and Feb. 21. I can only presume that those will not be carried out. Based on the state appeals court's action in Chi's case and the Supreme Court's action in Turner's case, I hope that we have at least a de facto moratorium on executions --for a little while, anyway.

Keep in mind that the issue the Supreme Court will consider is not abolishing capital punishment, but whether one method of execution is unconstitutionally cruel.

After the court rules, Texas will be back in the killing business again, I assure you -- unless we demand that our politicians end this immoral act altogether.

It is long past time to put a stop to this insanity.

If you still have doubts about that, just remember those two names: Michael Richard and Carlton Turner. Remember, too, Judge Sharon Keller.

And as you contemplate the judge's name, also remember that members of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are elected.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

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