Even in Texas, the execution of a convicted murderer is not a commonplace occurrence. When the state is prepared to administer the ultimate, irreversible sanction of justice, its officials must ensure that the judicial process has functioned with meticulous care. A human life is at stake.
Sharon Keller has demonstrated herself to be unfit to serve as the highest judge on Texas’ highest criminal appeals court. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct properly prosecuted Keller for judicial misconduct in the case of death row inmate Michael Richard.
On the day of Richard’s scheduled execution in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it was going to consider a case that would determine whether execution by lethal injection amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Richard’s attorneys had contacted Keller, the presiding judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, indicating they were planning to file an appeal on that basis.
The Supreme Court case led to a seven-month moratorium on lethal injections. But not before Texas sent Richard to the death chamber. Despite the news from Washington, Keller refused to keep the court clerk’s office open past 5 p.m. to receive the appeal from Richard’s attorneys.
Keller’s defense is that Richard’s attorneys failed to knock on the right doors and weren’t persistent enough. But Richard’s attorneys don’t represent the power of the state and don’t have the same professional and ethical responsibilities as a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Keller’s actions are at issue, not those of Richard’s attorneys. The judge failed to follow standard procedure for after-hours appeals in death penalty cases. That’s why she faces five counts of official judicial misconduct. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injections are constitutional. Richard, who had been on death row for two decades for the gruesome rape and murder of Marguerite Dixon, would have been executed anyway — without questions about the impartiality of Texas justice.
Keller’s irresponsible actions have brought disrepute on the Texas criminal justice system. Worse, they’ve unnecessarily shifted the focus away from the true victim in this case — Dixon.
One step toward restoring confidence in the system is to hold Keller accountable for the events that took place in 2007 and remove her as presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals.