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Texas Judge in Jeopardy Over Death-Row Decision

POSTED: 04:40 PM ET, 02/24/2009 by Derek Kravitz

It was Sept. 25, 2007, and Michael Wayne Richard was about to be executed. His lawyers rushed to file a last-minute appeal for the Houston man, who was on death row for the rape and murder of a woman 21 years before. They lawyers asked a judge for a 20-minute extension past the 5 p.m. court deadline.

Computer problems had hampered their efforts to file something quickly. The attorneys say they needed extra time (see the formal complaint, courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman).

But Richard's attorneys and civil-rights advocates say they ran into a problem. Her name was Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Colleagues had given her the nickname "Killer Keller" for the Republican's tough approach to crime. Keller refused to keep the court's clerk offices open after 5 p.m., telling one of Richard's attorneys, Edward J. Marty, bluntly "no" when he asked for the late filing. She said she had to meet a repairman at her home.

Richard was executed at 8:20 p.m. that night by lethal injection. Keller now faces a rare public hearing in front of a Texas judicial commission that could result in her removal from office.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct filed charges against Keller for allegedly violating rules that judges "act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and to ensure that every person is provided access to court."

The Austin American-Statesman editorialized that the trial would show "the sordid events of Sept. 25...Keller's cold-blooded and process-centered approach to justice would be on vivid display." The Dallas Morning News said that the "state Constitution guarantees access to the courts, and any abrogation of that right - especially with an execution pending - is an outrage." The Houston Chronicle's Rick Casey said Keller "should hope for more mercy than she has shown" and the San Antonio Express-News' Rebeca Chapa lampooned Keller's "disastrous judgment call" and said judges "like Keller need to be challenged when they mess up."

Keller's attorney, Charles Babcock, says his client was not the judge in charge of the execution and that Richard's attorneys should have known to file late appeals with Judge Cheryl Johnson.

"Judge Keller very much denies these allegations," Babcock said. "But as importantly, there are a number of facts which are omitted (in the charges) that would win the case for her if known."

Records of telephone calls between Keller and Richard's attorneys may prove crucial.

According to the commission's findings, judges at a court meeting the day after Richard's execution "expressed surprise there had been no appeal, and one judge said he believed a late filing should be allowed in a similar hypothetical situation." The commission also noted that Keller, who was present at the meeting, made no mention of what had happened the day before.

By Derek Kravitz |  February 24, 2009; 4:40 PM ET
Previous: Lobbying Firm Under FBI Scrutiny Still Collecting Bucks For Clients | Next: Obama, Jindal Trade Barbs on Economy; Banks Lag on Bailout Details; Palin to Pay for Family Travel

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