Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Death judge broke rules

So many judges, so little time.

One article on this paper's front page Thursday revealed that U.S.
District Judge Sam Kent had hired lawyer Dick DeGuerin and undergone
questioning by the FBI in connection with findings that he had sexually
harassed an employee.

Right next to it was an article disclosing the fact that the state's
highest judge on criminal matters grossly violated at least the spirit of
her court's policy in September by turning down a request to keep the
clerk's office open an extra half hour or so to accept a last-minute
appeal for a Texas man scheduled to be executed that night.

Lawyers for convicted murderer Michael Richard were trying to respond
quickly to a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier in the day that stayed
the execution of a Kentucky man while the justices decided whether the
chemical cocktail used in the executioner's injection led to a slow and
painful death.

The policy Keller flouted

When Richard's lawyers had computer problems printing out their briefs,
they called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and asked a clerk to stay
open so they could petition for a stay based on the fact that Texas uses a
similar or identical chemical cocktail.

The clerk contacted Judge Sharon Keller for guidance, and Keller said to
close at 5 p.m.

Yet in response to public information requests from the Houston Chronicle
and at least 2 lawyers, Keller herself disclosed a contrary policy that
was in place on that day, though it wasn't set down in writing until

The policy required that one of the court's 9 judges "be assigned to be in
charge of each scheduled execution."

"Unless the Court has been informed by defense counsel that no pleadings
will be filed, or pleadings have been filed and ruled on," both that judge
and the court's general counsel must be available "until the time of
execution has passed."

Richard deserved to die

In other words, unless the condemned person's lawyers notified them
otherwise, the court's policy was to assume there would be last-minute
appeals and to be ready to receive them.

Part of the policy was carried out. Judge Cheryl Johnson was assigned to
be the judge in charge, and made herself available to be contacted.

The policy also required that "all communications regarding the scheduled
execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge." That
specifically includes "telephone calls."

Johnson expressed anger that she was not alerted of the attempt to appeal.
By the time she learned of it from media accounts, Richard was dead.

Later that week, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed another Texas execution
based on the same arguments Richard's lawyers attempted to use.

Keller has declined all requests for interviews and has not explained why
she did not instruct the clerk to stay open or to put Richard's lawyers in
touch with Johnson.

Richard's family has filed a wrongful death suit against Keller. Friday,
her lawyers filed a motion to dismiss it.

The reaction of many to Keller's actions is that Richard deserved to die.

Anybody who believes that judgment can be made by anybody other than God
would agree.

The miscreant raped and murdered a mother of 7, then drove off in her van.

But issues around the death penalty aren't about whether men like Richard
deserve to die. As far as I'm concerned, many more people in this world
deserve to die than will ever be condemned to do so.

It's not about the bad people. It's about the good people. And the good
people do not agree with each other on many issues.

How do we make sure that we execute only the deserving ones? Efforts to
address that problem have led to excruciatingly long stays on death row,
including 21 years for Michael Richard.

And how should we kill them?

That is the question that should have stayed Richard's execution even

Some would execute the killers in the way they killed their victims:
torture first.

But the societal consensus appears to express our cultural ambivalence
toward the death penalty. We want to kill the bad guys humanely.

We're not the first society to embrace this strained attempt at merciful

The guillotine was approved by the French as the official mode of
execution because it was less painful and more egalitarian than previous

Nobles were beheaded, sometimes tipping the executioner while requesting a
sharp ax. The methodology with commoners ranged from hanging to
dismemberment on the wheel.

We, of course, are egalitarian except that we rarely execute anyone with
the means to hire excellent lawyers.

All of this is to say that we will continue to slowly work our way through
the complex issues associated with being righteous killers.

In our society we do that with laws, with courts and with rules.

If we expected criminals to follow the rules, we would quit building

And if we expected judges not to follow the rules, we would quit building

In the end, Michael Richard was held accountable. Will Sharon Keller be?

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at rick.casey@chron.com

(source: Houston Chronicle)

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