All the evidence in Michael Richard’s criminal case says he was a cold-hearted murderer. He killed a young woman without any hint of compassion. He may have been short of the mental capacity to understand the enormity of his crime. But even if society would not allow him that mitigating factor, he deserved more justice than he received in his final hours on earth. More to the point, Texans deserved a better brand of justice to represent them at a crucial moment of decision.
Richard was executed on the evening of Sept. 25, minutes after Sharon Keller, chief justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, refused to keep the court’s doors open for another half hour after the normal 5 p.m. closing time so that his attorneys could file an appeal. Keller’s refusal was reprehensible. Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court again staying another execution, this one in Mississippi on Tuesday, the closing of the doors of justice for Richard seems all the more abhorrent.
The second point is that the execution of Richard underscores the arbitrary nature of the application of the death penalty. Even defenders of capital punishment — and this page has supported the death penalty for decades — have a hard time explaining why one defendant with incompetent legal representation, in a county with different jurors, before a different judge, faced with prosecutors who get plea bargains with accomplices, should die over another defendant accused of an equally cruel crime gets a better luck of the draw. If Keller had kept the doors open, Richard would have had a chance at a stay of execution. But she shut the doors and Richard was executed. This is not justice; it’s a roulette wheel.
It’s not hard to see why Richard’s attorneys believe the entire system failed him. Not only did Keller pay more attention to the closing hours than the law, they believe the state attorney general could have acted as well as the governor’s office. But neither did.
The best justice system should honor the rule of law and due process without regard to the vagaries of the defendant’s situation. There may be no perfect justice on this earth, but the pursuit of it should be the most vigorous particularly in the worst of crimes. Belief in the rule of law should demand its dispassionate meting out. Do the condemned want to use any legal hand hold to delay the day of their execution? Of course. But the respect for the rule of law should demand that judges keep their minds open to its possible imperfection, not out of any regard to the defendant, but out of regard for the law and the Constitution.