Proceedings begin Monday in San Antonio courtroom on complaint criminal appeals judge blocked stay of execution request.
In a case that has inflamed passions on both sides of the death penalty debate, Judge Sharon Keller goes on trial today on civil charges that she improperly closed the state’s highest criminal court to an execution-day appeal in 2007 because the inmate’s lawyers were running late.
The moral debate over the death penalty, however, will play no role in Keller’s trial, said her lawyer, Chip Babcock — and prosecutors agree.
“This isn’t about whether you are for or against the death penalty. It’s really about process,” said Seana Willing, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by Texas judges.
“I think even the most ardent supporter of the death penalty would agree that you want to make sure … the process is followed and there aren’t mistakes along the way,” said Willing, who will act as co-examiner, or prosecutor, during Keller’s trial.
Still, opponents of capital punishment relish the idea of Keller, a self-described pro-prosecution judge, sitting at the defense table to fight the potentially career-ending charges.
These opponents say Keller’s decision to enforce the court’s 5 p.m. closing time epitomizes a flawed death penalty system that values ruthless efficiency over careful administration of the ultimate punishment.
“Sharon Keller is exhibit A on why we need a moratorium on executions in Texas,” said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, which filed a state ethics complaint over Keller’s handling of Michael Richard’s case that was signed by about 1,900 people in an online petition.
“We run major risk of having an innocent person executed if the judiciary is not running properly, and it’s not as long as Sharon Keller is presiding judge” of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Cobb said.
Supporters, however, praise Keller as a tough-on-crime jurist who made the right decision regarding Richard, who lived through 20 years of appeals before his Sept. 25, 2007, execution. They say it is galling that Keller’s 15-year judicial career is imperiled by a case involving Richard, a high school dropout who raped and killed a Hockley mother of seven grown children.
“I think Sharon Keller is getting a rough ride, and I don’t think she deserves it,” said Austin lawyer William “Rusty” Hubbarth, vice president of Justice for All, a national victims’ advocacy group. “I think she is a target of the abolition movement because she has been a supporter of capital punishment, which, if we all look at it, basically means she is a supporter of the will of the jury.”
Heading into trial, Willing and Babcock agree that mistakes were made during events leading to Richard’s execution. The legal debate will center on who made those mistakes.
Prosecutors will argue that Keller ignored her court’s execution-day procedures — violating her duty as a judge and bringing discredit to the judiciary — when she refused a request by Richard’s lawyers to keep the court open past 5 p.m. so they could file a stay of execution request.
The motion was based on news from the U.S. Supreme Court, which had announced that day that it would take a case challenging lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment. Richard’s lawyers with Texas Defender Service also said computer problems delayed their work.
Babcock said he will argue that Richard’s lawyers failed to act promptly and did not experience severe computer difficulties — claims Texas Defender Service lawyers denied under oath in pretrial depositions. He will also argue that Richard’s lawyers neglected appellate rules that would have allowed them to file briefs with any judge on the nine-member court.
“Judge Keller did not, and could not have if she wanted to, close access to the court,” he said.
Keller’s civil trial, in the San Antonio courtroom of state District Judge David Berchelmann Jr., will be conducted under special rules applying to allegations of judicial misconduct. It is the first step in a judicial review process that could result in charges being dropped or Keller being censured or removed from office.
Keller, a Republican, became the first woman to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995.
She was elected presiding judge in 2000, and her current term will end in 2012.
- Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
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