'Killer Keller' Has Got To Go
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller should resign or be pressured out of her job for her shameful role in the death of a capital defendant named Michael Richard. He was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas on the same day that the United States Supreme Court announced it would review two lethal injection cases out of Kentucky to determine whether the procedure violates the "cruel and unusual" punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.
Keller literally closed the courthouse doors to Richard's attorneys, who had asked for an extra half-hour to file a last-minute appeal on Richard's behalf. They told her that computer problems and the late-breaking Supreme Court move made those few minutes necessary. She didn't care. Failing to consult the three other judges who were working late that day, and who now say they would have accepted the filing, Keller ordered her staff to close the courthouse at precisely 5 p.m. Without a the Texas court ruling on an appeal from Richard's attorneys, the Supreme Court in Washington had no basis to issue its own stay of execution. So Richard was executed.
Ultimately, he might have been executed anyway. The Supreme Court is going to tweak injection rules not do away with the death penalty outright. But Richard certainly didn't get a fair deal.
Capital punishment cases are among the most sensitive issues on the Supreme Court docket. And it's widely accepted that once the Supreme Court decides to hear a capital case, other executions involving similar factual and legal issues should be temporarily halted. Richard's case met that test. Richard's judge did not. By demonstrating such poor judgment, Keller has forfeited her right to determine the life, liberty and property interests of others. She's just plain no good.
Even George W. Bush, who established an atrocious capital punishment legacy when he was governor of Texas, found that Keller had gone too far in the 1998 case of Roy Criner. Criner was sentenced to 99 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. But after DNA testing revealed that the semen found on the victim was not Criner's, Keller refused to grant a retrial. In her opinion, she wrote that the absence of Criner's semen might suggest "a failure to ejaculate ... or it may establish a condom was used." Then-Governor Bush pardoned Criner in 2000.
There is evidence that the Texas legal community is beginning to muster the courage to do something about Keller and her frontier brand of justice. Twenty Texas lawyers submitted an ethics complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. And hundreds of lawyers, including two former state Supreme Court justices and several past presidents of the Texas Bar Association, have signed a petition seeking a transition to electronic filing. That would be momentous in a state with such a long history of disregard for the rights of capital defendants.
I applaud those folks in Texas who have the courage and integrity to join the crusade. Of course, nothing in Keller's record suggests that she will be any more receptive to timely e-filings than she was to Richard's futile appeal. She did, after all, actively cultivate the nickname "Killer Kelley" to gain office in a judicial election. In other words, she is a jurist who owes her position not to sound reasoning or compassion, but to the whims and caprices of a political majority.
But the revolt is, at least, a start.
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