Thursday, August 13, 2009

Time: A Texas Judge on Trial: Closed to a Death-Row Appeal?

The following is Time Magazine's article on the upcoming trial of Judge Sharon "Killer" Keller in San Antonio.
By Hilary Hylton / Austin

Soft-spoken and a devout Christian, Judge Sharon Keller presides as chief
justice of Texas' highest criminal court. She's also known as "Sharon Killer"
by her opponents, who are going to see her in court next week on charges of
judicial misconduct. They charge that Keller refused a condemned man a
last-minute appeal in 2007 and now she faces a trial in a San Antonio
courtroom that could lead to her removal and will certainly focus wide
attention on Texas' enthusiasm for the death penalty.

Keller finds herself at this pass because of a four-word sentence she uttered
on September 25, 2007: "We close at five." According to a newspaper interview
with Keller in October 2007 and pretrial testimony last year, she said those
words to Ed Marty, general counsel for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
(CCA). As the court's logistics officer, Marty had called the judge at the
behest of lawyers for Michael Richard, 49, who had been on Death Row for two
decades and whose execution was scheduled for that evening. The lawyers were
allegedly having computer trouble and problems getting last-minute paperwork
to the Austin court. Keller was reportedly at her home dealing with a
repairman that afternoon when she she got the request — and made her reply.
Richard's lawyers failed to meet the deadline, and at 8:23 p.m. Richard was
declared dead following a lethal injection. (Read a brief history of lethal

An outcry followed. "This execution proceeded because the highest criminal
court couldn't be bothered to stay an extra 20 minutes on the night of an
execution," Andrea Keilen, executive director of Texas Defender Service told
ABC News in 2007. Not only did Texas defense attorneys quickly file complaints
with the state's judicial oversight commission, in an unprecedented move the
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers joined the filing. Newspapers
across the state and nation weighed in with scathing editorials and anti-death
penalty campaigns went on the attack. The Texas Moratorium Network set up

A year and a half later, in February, Keller was charged by the State
Commission on Judicial Conduct with "willfill and persistent" failure to
follow the CCA's protocols for last-minute appeals and for bringing public
discredit on the court. Opponents say her actions displayed a dogmatic
affinity for the death penalty. But her supporters, some of whom do not share
her conservative views, contend she was following the rules and was not
responsible for the shortcomings of defense attorneys. They also point to
Keller's work doubling the number of public defenders' offices in Texas and
boosting their budget from $19 million to $60 million. (Read about the debate
over the death penalty.)

A special master — a judge named by the state supreme court for the occasion —
has been appointed to preside over the fact-finding trial. San Antonio
District Judge David Berchelman Jr., a former member of the CCA, can either
recommend to the commission that the charges be dismissed, or that Judge
Keller be reprimanded or even removed from office by the state supreme court.

Though she handily won her elections to the bench, Keller exhibited little
interest in politics during college, friends say. The bright daughter of a
Dallas entrepreneur and famed restauranteur "Cactus" Jack Keller, she excelled
in school and studied philosophy at Rice then law at Southern Methodist
University. But 1994, while working as an appellate attorney in the Dallas
prosecutor's office, she ran for a spot on the CCA and, thanks to a Republican
landslide on the coattails of George W. Bush, won her seat. In her second term
she ran successfully for the top slot, the court's presiding judge. Keller has
consistently been part of the court's conservative voting bloc and has said
she saw her election as an opportunity to balance the high court after several
decades of domination by judges inclined toward the defense bar. (However,
there has always been a high degree of support for the death penalty even
among Democratic judges in Texas.)

The genteel-looking Keller is expected to put up a fight, even though, so far,
she has been silent on the upcoming trial. In a written response to the
charges, she derided the defense attorney's claims that computer trouble
delayed their paperwork: "It did not take a computer to prepare and timely could have been hand written and the court would have accepted it as
Judge Keller informed the Commission."

She will also defend herself by discussing the man she is accused of wronging:
the executed Michael Richard. Richard has a long legal history and a criminal
record that evokes little sympathy. "By the time he was executed," Keller
wrote in her response to the charges, "Richard had two trials, two direct
appeals (including to the United States Supreme Court), two state habeas
corpus proceedings and three federal habeas corpus hearings or motions." She
added that the charge against her that Richard was not accorded access to open
courts or the right to be heard "is patently without merit."

In 1986, two months after being released from his second prison term, Richard
killed Marguerite Lucille Dixon, 53, a nurse and mother of seven. Dixon had
invited him in for a cold glass of water after Richard had knocked on her
front door and asked if her van was for sale. Two of her children found her.
She had been sexually assaulted, then killed and her van and television
stolen. A year later, Richard was on death row. After confessing, Richard
claimed he was innocent, but his appeals centered on a history of alleged
family abuse and his supposed IQ of 64. He told reporters he had learned to
read and write on Death Row.

But the handling of Richard's appeals process is what is being contested by
Keller's opponents. Richard won a new trial from the CCA because the alleged
abuse he had suffered at the hands of his father had not been considered in
his first trial, according to the appellate record. But Richard was convicted
again in 1995 and once again given the death penalty, even after his mother
and sister were allowed to testify about the alleged abuse during the
punishment phase of the trial. Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling
prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded prisoners, his lawyers appealed
for another trial based on his alleged IQ level. The CCA turned him down and
that appeal was ongoing when the Supreme Court suddenly opened a new avenue
for appeal on the day Richard was scheduled to die.

The high court announced it had agreed to hear arguments in Baze v Rees, on
whether Kentucky's use of lethal injections (the same method Texas uses)
violated constitutional proscriptions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Richard's attorneys with the Texas Defender Service hoped to use the Baze case
to win a delay, but they would have to go through the CCA in Austin first
before approaching the Supreme Court for a stay and, as the execution was
looming, they would have to act very quickly. Frantically trying to assemble
their paperwork — the CCA did not permit e-mail filings, but now does —
lawyers in Houston and Austin conferred over the phone, back and forth. They
claimed they were further slowed by computer failures, an issue on which
experts on both sides are expected to testify.

One issue is whether Keller was emphatically rejecting any pleadings to the
court, or simply noting that the clerk's office closed at 5 p.m., as required
by state law. Keller's attorneys will most likely argue the latter, saying
that everyone knows that Texas appellate law provided for after-hours filings
directly to judges. Friends said Keller was bewildered by the fallout. In the
days just after the event, she told the Austin American-Statesman that she was
not given a reason why the attorneys wanted the clerk's office to stay open.
"They did not tell us they had computer failure and given the late request,
and with no reason given, I just said, 'We close at five.' I didn't really
think of it as a decision as much as a statement," the newspaper quoted Keller
as saying.

Keller has turned to noted defense attorney Charles "Chip" Babcock — he
represented Oprah Winfrey in 1998 when the talk show host was unsuccessfully
sued for slander by Texas cattlemen. Babcock told the Austin
American-Statesman he will question the "myth" of the computer problem and the
last-minute actions of Richard's appellate lawyers. "I think our version is
going to be that they just didn't do their job that day," Babcock said. It is
a tactic that Neal Manne, representing the Texas Defenders Service, rejects as
a "sideshow" designed to deflect from the real issue — Judge Keller's actions
that afternoon.

One sobering what-if: even if Richard had gotten his appeal accepted by the
U.S. Supreme Court, he would most likely have extended his life by only eight
months. The high court eventually upheld the constitutionality of Kentucky's
use of lethal injections.

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