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