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Texas Judge Sharon Keller Fights Reprimand Over Death Row Appeal

4 years ago
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The story of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller, who blew off a legitimate appeal from a condemned man hours before he was executed, has long been a shocking and dismal one. Now it has become ironic, too, for the famously coldhearted judge has become precisely what coldhearted judges all over the country secretly detest: She's become a nuisance appellant, a losing litigant who hasn't yet learned that sometimes it's just better to quit while you are behind.

On Friday, for example, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct weakly reprimanded Keller for her truly shameful role in the final (attempted) appeal of Michael Richard. The commission could have sought her ouster but settled for giving her what it called a "public warning." But instead of accepting that gentle slap on the wrist, instead of being grateful for still having a taxpayer-financed job, Keller and her attorney immediately vowed to appeal the commission's conclusions. Ironic, no, that a judge who thought so little of Richard's appeal would think so much of her own?

Judge Sharon KellerThe ugly story is familiar to those of you who have been reading along with me through the years. Richard was scheduled to die in Texas by lethal injection on Sept. 25, 2007, but on the morning of his execution the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case involving lethal injection procedures. A stay of execution for Richard should have been almost ministerial in nature -- and, indeed, scheduled executions via lethal injection were halted all over the country pending the court's resolution of the case we now know as Baze v. Rees. Except in Judge Keller's court.

Keller didn't assist Richard's lawyers in getting that appeal filed. In fact, she actively worked against those lawyers to ensure that their appeal would not be filed in time. She didn't tell her fellow judges to expect a Richards filing -- they didn't find out until the next morning that Keller had blocked the attempt to file. Knowing that she alone had determined Richard's fate that day, Keller went home to meet a repairman at her house. Richard was executed that night, his final appeal never heard by the courts. This from a jurist who was known before the incident as "Killer" Keller for her views on the death penalty.

What Keller did (and did not do) that day, the commission declared on Friday, "constitutes willful or persistent conduct" that "is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties as a judge" and "casts public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice" in Texas. And certainly it is this language -- and not the "public warning," whatever that means -- that has Keller fired up. After getting the verdict, the judge and her attorney turned upon the commission in a decidedly unjudicious manner. "It is perhaps not surprising that the same commission that made the charges finds them now to be valid despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary," Keller's lawyer said. "Judge Keller looks forward to challenging this decision."

And so the judge who failed miserably at dispensing justice to Michael Richard will now suck up public time, money and effort trying to capture it for herself. This at a time of deep budget cuts and shortfalls within the criminal justice system in Texas that are forcing officials there to do the unthinkable: close prisons. If Keller cared about these things more than she does about salvaging her reputation -- good luck with that -- this litigation would be at an end. Then again, if Keller possessed the sort of integrity and sacrifice the public demands and deserves from its jurists, she would have never left court early that day in September 2007 to meet the repairman at her home.

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