A civil rights group is asking the state to revoke the law license of a judge who has been a lightning rod in debates over the death penalty.
The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed a grievance Wednesday with the State Bar of Texas against Justice Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying she is unfit to retain her license to practice law. Records show Keller has been licensed since graduating from SMU’s law school in 1978.
The group alleges she is untrustworthy and dishonest, citing:
A review by the Texas Ethics Commission that found she failed to disclose several sources of income, as required by law.
Her refusal in 2007 to keep the court open after 5 p.m. at the request of lawyers drafting an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed that evening.
Statements she made in a federal lawsuit filed by Richard’s widow that purportedly contradict what she told the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Keller, who recently said she’d seek reelection in 2012, had no comment. Her lawyer, Chip Babcock, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which publicly warned her after investigating her actions on the day Richards was executed, also had no comment.
In April, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Keller a record $100,000 for failing to report stock, honoraria and more than $2.4 million in real estate holdings on her 2007 and 2008 personal financial disclosure statements. Keller filed amended reports with the commission in 2009 after news reports revealed her missing holdings.
In a statement filed with the amended reports, Keller said her father made investments for her and her son without her knowledge.
In 2009, the judicial conduct commission filed misconduct charges against Keller and issued her a “public warning.” The disciplinary body said she brought discredit to the judiciary by closing the court to Richard’s appeals in 2007 just hours before he was executed.
In October, a special panel of three Republican judges said the commission issued her the wrong discipline, but the panel did not set aside the commission’s misconduct findings.
Richard’s widow, Marsha Richard, sued Keller in federal court in Austin in 2007. Keller argued that she acted in her judicial capacity in refusing to keep the courthouse open for Michael Richard’s appeal, which made her immune to a lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case in 2008.
But in front of the judicial conduct commission, Keller claimed she had acted in an administrative capacity, not in a judicial role.
“As the documents included in the grievance demonstrate, Judge Keller’s statements before the federal court and her statements to the (conduct) commission were in complete contradiction of each other,” said Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The important thing is she was under oath for both.”
Marsha Richard’s lawyer, Randall Kallinen, said Keller wrongly used the two hats to her advantage, and her credibility suffered.
“Judges should not be allowed to argue two opposite positions in two different tribunals to their advantage because it erodes the people’s confidence in the judiciary,” Kallinen said. “It contradicts the public’s perception of fairness towards all parties regardless of the party’s high status.”
The Dallas Morning News says in an editorial today that Texas needs a moratorium on executions. Texas Monthly endorsed a moratorium this month also. The Texas Legislature began its work in Austin on January 11. The highest priority for people interested in stopping executions in Texas should be to convince the Texas Legislature to enact a moratorium on executions.
Seeking a moratorium is the best strategy for stopping executions in Texas. It worked in Illinois, it can work in Texas.
It’s clear Texas law-enforcement officials and courts have gotten it terribly wrong at times, so much so that a moratorium is just as appropriate in Texas today as it was in Illinois in 2000.
Questions cry out for answers about whether flaws in Texas justice run so deep that the death chamber should be dismantled. This newspaper believes it’s a system that cannot ever be fail-safe. While many Texans vehemently disagree, still others are conflicted over the matter. Experts and state officials must have the chance to address these issues without the death row conveyor belt moving in the background.
Lawmakers in Austin need to support a moratorium.
Yesterday, January 11, 2011, Cleve Foster received a last minute stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court. By around 6:15 pm Tuesday, more than 60 people had gathered at the Texas Capitol to protest the scheduled execution when the news of a stay of execution came in a phone call from other protesters gathered outside The Walls Unit in Huntsville (Photos from Capitol).
On the same day, the Illinois Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty and sent the bill to the governor of Illinois.
Yesterday was also the first day of the 2011 Texas legislative session, during which a moratorium on executions will be one of the issues under consideration.
The U.S. Supreme Court gave a last-minute stay of execution Tuesday evening to a Desert Storm veteran and former Army recruiter convicted of raping and killing a Sudanese immigrant in Fort Worth in 2002.
Cleve Foster, 47, known as “Sarge” on Death Row, had eaten his final meal and was waiting to walk a few steps to the death chamber when the court’s brief order was received just before 6 p.m., a prison spokesman said.
The court offered no explanation for its decision or why justices other than Justice Antonin Scalia participated. Scalia can act alone on Texas execution appeals. But he can also ask other justices to vote on whether to hear an appeal.
The order indicated that Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the majority vote and would have allowed the execution to proceed.
When prison officials asked Foster whether he was surprised to get a reprieve, he said, “I was and I wasn’t. I gave it to God a long time ago.”
He also said he was gratified by support from friends, calling it “really humbling.”
Foster’s execution would have been the first this year in Texas.
Foster has always maintained that his co-defendant, Sheldon Ward, was responsible for fatally shooting 30-year-old Nyaneur “Mary” Pal on Feb. 13, 2002.
Ward, one of Foster’s Army recruits, was also condemned for the slaying. He died of cancer last year in prison.
In their latest appeal, Foster’s attorneys argued that his conviction was flawed because trial lawyers failed to arrange for a blood-spatter expert to dispute a detective’s testimony that Ward couldn’t have killed Pal and moved her body to where it was found all by himself. If they had presented such testimony, there was “at least a reasonable probability that the result of Mr. Foster’s trial would have been different,” appellate attorney Clint Broden said.
Prosecutors insisted that evidence showed that Foster actively participated in the woman’s killing, offered no credible explanations, and lied and gave contradictory stories about his sexual activities with Pal. His eleventh-hour appeal “recycles the stale arguments that state and federal courts have already considered in rejecting Foster’s protestations of innocence,” Jonathan Mitchell, an assistant Texas solicitor general, wrote in the state’s response.
Foster declined to speak with reporters in recent weeks. In 2005, he told The Associated Press that he viewed the evidence against him as prosecutors “pulling stuff out of their hat.”
“I didn’t do this,” he said of Pal’s killing.
Read more: http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/01/11/2762454/ex-recruiters-execution-for-2002.html#ixzz1AqS6rxtd
A Houston defendant cannot challenge the state’s death penalty laws as unconstitutional before his capital murder trial begins, the state’s highest court ruled today.
John Edward Green Jr., charged with robbing and killing a Houston woman in 2008, had challenged the Texas death penalty law because “its application has created a substantial risk that innocent people have been, and will be, convicted and executed.”
District Judge Kevin Fine held a Dec. 6 hearing on Green’s motion, hearing from defense experts who testified about 138 exonerations of U.S. death row inmates since 1978, including 12 in Texas.
At the urging of prosecutors, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the hearing the following day and requested briefings to determine if proceedings should continue.
Today, the court ruled 6-2 that Fine exceeded his authority and ordered him to dismiss Green’s challenge. Texas law does not allow judges to hold pretrial hearings on the constitutionality of a law, said the opinion by Judge Cathy Cochran.
In addition, until the death penalty statute is applied against Green, he does not have legal standing to challenge the law, the court ruled.
“One does not put the cart before the horse: a defendant has no claim of wrongful conviction or wrongful sentencing before he has even gone to trial,” Cochran wrote.
“It bears noting that no provision of the current (death penalty statute) has been held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or this Court, although that statute has been attacked many times,” Cochran added.
Judges Tom Price and Paul Womack dissented without submitting an opinion stating their reasons. Recently retired Judge Charlie Holcomb did not participate.
Fine made national news last spring when, in response to a motion from Green’s lawyers, he declared the Texas death penalty law unconstitutional. He later rescinded that ruling and ordered the December hearing, saying he should have heard evidence before reaching such a conclusion.
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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