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Highest criminal judge in Texas on trial

Published Aug 27, 2009 9:12 PM

Texas already had a reputation for executing death row prisoners at a rate unparalleled anywhere else in the United States.

But progressive activists, attorneys, judges and legal ethicists did a double-take on Sept. 25, 2007, when Texas’ highest criminal judge responded to a plea for 20 extra minutes to file an appeal for a prisoner set for execution at 6 p.m. that evening with “Tell them we close at 5.”

Judge Sharon “Killer” Keller, as she has been nicknamed by death penalty opponents, arrogantly thought that the life of Michael Richard did not matter. She had left work at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals early that afternoon to meet a repair person at her home. She got a call at home saying Richard’s attorneys were having computer problems and needed a few more minutes.

Her response of “we close at 5” is likely to end her judicial career.

That morning the U.S. Supreme Court had effectively suspended lethal injection as a manner of execution by accepting a challenge to its constitutionality in a Kentucky case.

Richard was executed a few hours later because, without the Texas high court ruling on his appeal, his lawyers could not appeal his case any further. His was the last execution in the U.S. until the U.S. high court ruled in April 2008 that the procedures in Kentucky were not cruel and unusual. There was a de facto moratorium on executions in the U.S. for more than seven months.

Judge Keller was in court this August, but this time she was the defendant. The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct had filed six charges against her for unethical behavior and bringing disgrace to the judicial process.

On Aug. 17, the first day of trial, dozens of death penalty activists protested outside the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio, using amplified sound which echoed off the courthouse to proclaim that Judge Keller should be immediately removed from the bench and disbarred.

“Because of her arbitrary decision not to stay open to accept the appeal of death row prisoner Michael Richard, which she made in violation of her own court’s rules and without consulting the other judges on the court, Keller should be removed from office,” Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, said on the bullhorn.

The demonstration attracted media coverage from CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the BBC as well as all major Texas media.

During opening arguments, attorneys for both sides tried to convince the reporters, attorneys, bloggers, law students and anti-death penalty activists packing the courtroom that the trial of Judge Keller was not a debate on the death penalty.

But Hooman Hedayati, a leader of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty (TSADP) in Austin, told the news media, “By her actions, Keller has herself made this a debate on the death penalty. She did not follow the execution day procedures set by her own court. She is still fulfilling her election campaign promise of being a pro-prosecution judge.”

Judge Keller’s trial ended after four days of testimony. Her attorney tried to blame death penalty activists and Richard’s attorneys for causing the judge’s problems.

The specially appointed judge who presided over the trial is to “promptly” make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. Keller could receive a reprimand or be removed from the bench.

“Whatever happens, Keller’s judicial career is over. Even if they decide not to remove her from the bench, she will never get re-elected,” commented ex-convict and prison activist Ray Hill, host of KPFT radio’s “The Prison Show.” “It’s over for her.”

Emphasizing the same opinion, TSADP posted on their Facebook page that “at a hearing on Wednesday, she said in a crowded courtroom that if she had it to do again, she would do the same thing. That testimony is further proof of why Judge Keller needs to be removed from the bench.”

Keller’s callous disregard for the life of a person facing execution was editorialized by the New York Times last week in an opinion titled “An Unfit Judge.” It compared Keller’s actions to the disturbing dissent that U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas recently delivered in the Troy Davis case. The two judges suggested there was no constitutional problem with executing a man who could prove he was innocent, as long as he had received “a fair trial.”

“Judge Keller is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the long history of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” death row prison leader Harvey Earvin, founder of Panthers United for Revolutionary Education (PURE), told Workers World.

“She is the current face of the long, racist history of this court, which has utter contempt for any person on death row. The other eight Republicans on the court may be a bit more subtle than Keller, but they do the ruling class’s bidding just the same. Keller had no qualms about executing an innocent Shaka Sankofa in 2000, and she didn’t care about executing Michael Richard in 2007. We need to not only get rid of her but the whole legal system that is used against the poor and oppressed in this country.”