Two big Texas death penalty related stories in 2009 were the charges of misconduct against Judge Sharon Keller and passage through the Texas House of a bill to ban executions of non-killers convicted solely under the Law of Parties. This is part one of a look back at big stories of 2009. Coming up in Part Two of our look back at 2009: protesting 200 executions under Rick Perry, the Todd Willingham case and the largest anti-death penalty march and rally in Texas since 2000.
Sharon Keller – In February 2009, one day after the New York Times wrote an editorial about Keller, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct filed Notice of Formal Proceedings against Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
In 2007 Texas Moratorium Network was one of several groups that filed a judicial complaint against Sharon Keller. (We also created a website called www.sharonkiller.com.) Our complaint was co-signed by almost 1900 people. In 2007, we also talked to several legislators who also subsequently signed on to a complaint or filed their own complaints against Keller: Reps Dutton, Olivo, Coleman, Farrar and Burnam.
Last December (2008), TMN approached Rep Lon Burnam and asked him to file a resolution to impeach Keller. Today, the New York Times wrote an editorial supporting Burnam’s resolution.
Rep Burnam did file his impeachment resolution (Watch video) and the Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence took testimony on April 27, 2009 on Burnam’s resolution to impeach Sharon Keller.
No action was taken on the resolution, in part because the trial of Sharon Keller was scheduled for August, so the committee members wanted to let the SCJC process proceed.
In August, the trial of Sharon Keller was held in San Antonio. We attended the trial and held a demonstration outside the courthouse on the first day. Our rally appeared in a story on CNN, which was our first of two appearances on CNN in 2009. The second came in October about Todd Willingham.
Judge Berchelmann, the special master who heard the testimony at the trial, has not yet submitted his findings to the State Commisssion on Judicial Conduct. He is expected to do so in 2010.
The Law of Parties Bill
The Texas House passed a bill that would have banned executions of people convicted under the Law of Parties who did not actually kill anyone. Rep Hodge and Rep Dutton both filed Law of Parties bills in response to the cases of Kenneth Foster, Jeff Wood and other people who have been sentenced to death despite not having killed anyone. Prior to the start of the session, we had lobbied legislators looking for a sponsor for the Law of Parties bill, so we were happy when both Rep Dutton and Rep Hodge filed bills.
We held a press conference with Rep Dutton and Kenneth Foster’s and Jeff Wood’s family to explain the law of parties bill. Watch video of press conference TV coverage.
We held a lobby day in March during which we met with legislators about the Law of Parties bill. It was the largest lobby day against the death penalty ever held in Texas. We lobbied 90 legislative offices. People came from all over Texas to participate, including the father and grandfather of Kenneth Foster, and family members of Jeff Wood, Randy Halprin and several other families of people convicted under the Law of Parties. In addition to building support for the law of parties bill on the lobby day, we found additional legislative sponsors for a bill to abolish the death penalty and the moratorium bill.
We followed up in April with a second mini-lobby day after the law of parties bill had passed the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. We lobbied for passage by the full House. Watch Rep Hodge urging people to call their legislators about her bill.
On May 2, there was a second rally for the law of parties bill. Watch video here.
On May 15, the bill passed the full Texas House and was renamed the “Kenneth Foster, Jr Act”. We live blogged and issued a press release. After passing the House, the bill died in the senate after Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto it.
The bill died in part because of false information given out by prosecutors such as Williamson County Attorney John Bradley, who said in the Austin American-Statesman: “To exempt all defendants in capital cases because they didn’t pull the trigger “is irrational. Under that reasoning, Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson could never get the death penalty. You have to look at the facts of each case … whether their participation merits holding them culpable”.
HB 2267 said
(b) A defendant who is found guilty in a capital felony case
only as a party under Section 7.02(b), Penal Code, may not be
sentenced to death, and the state may not seek the death penalty in
any case in which the defendant’s liability is based solely on that
People like Hitler, Manson and Osama bin Laden would not have been prosecuted under Section 7.02(b), but prosecutors used that scare tactic to help kill the bill.
Coming up in Part Two of our look back at 2009: protesting 200 executions under Rick Perry, the Todd Willingham case and the largest anti-death penalty march and rally in Texas since 2000.