When Texas Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Sharon Keller directed that the doors to the clerk’s office be slammed shut to prevent the Texas Defender Service from filing a last minute application to stay the execution of Michael Wayne Richard, she drew a line in the sand. Did Killer Keller personally own the power of life and death?
For a while, it appeared that the answer was clear. She did. Richard was executed and Judge Keller continued to wear a black robe.
Now, the line may be blurring, as the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct has brought charges against Sharon Keller for her handling of this execution. The complaint provides the details of how Killer Keller ignored the court’s own Execution Day procedures, disenfranchised another sitting judge, Cheryl Johnson, who was assigned to handle the last-minute stay application, directed the court’s “counsel”, Edward Marty, to make sure the clerk’s office closed at 5:00 p.m. knowing that the application was on its way, and assured that Richard would die.
Ironically, Keller did all of this from home, as she had left the courthouse early that day to meet a repairman at home. She understood priorities.
As Mark Bennett notes in his discussion of the Judicial Conduct Commission’s inquiry, Sharon Keller could have been stopped. CCA Counsel Marty could have refused the command to close the courthouse doors, but he didn’t. He could have alerted Judge Johnson, or any of the other judges, but he didn’t. He could have simply followed the court’s Execution Day protocols and not reached out to Killer Keller at home, interrupting her very important repair, but he didn’t. Powerful people like Sharon Keller need the assistance of official women like Edward Marty to do their bidding. That way, they can assure that someone dies even when the dish washer needs fixin’.
The New York Times chimed in with an editorial about a Texas legislator seeking impeachment of Keller.
If the facts are as reported, Judge Keller should be removed from the bench. It would show monumental callousness, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of justice, for a judge to think that a brief delay in closing a court office should take precedence over a motion that raises constitutional objections to an execution. If the facts have been misreported, the impeachment process would allow Judge Keller to set the record straight.
The facts were never in dispute. It’s a shame that the Times was unaware, particularly since it had run a story about it shortly after the execution. They noted in the article that complaints were filed by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers’ Association and others.
Judge Sharon Keller’s reaction to the outcry at the time was underwhelming:
The Austin American-Statesman quoted Judge Keller on Oct. 3 as defending her decision to close, saying she had asked Mr. Richard’s lawyers why the court should stay open “and no reason was given.”
“I just said, ‘We close at 5.’ I didn’t really think of it as a decision as much as a statement,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
What appears from the Judicial Conduct Commission’s inquiry is that this was false. She spoke with Counsel Marty, not the lawyers for Richards. She was told that the TDS was experiencing computer problems, and that they needed another 20 minutes to file the papers. Judge Johnson was sitting in her chambers awaiting a stay application. Counsel Marty had already drafted the decision. Killer Keller was busy with the repairman. Executions are usually worth thinking about. Even in Texas.
It’s surprising, maybe even shocking, that there is an inquiry at all. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the final word in criminal cases in Texas, and to have a judge sitting on that court subject to inquiry at all is quite an astounding feat. But even so, there is something so monumentally underwhelming about this remedy. Michael Wayne Richard was executed, and no inquiry will change that fact. While removal from office would be an extraordinary remedy, should it happen, it remains viscerally inadequate.
A system that would allow Judge Sharon Keller to utter a few words and seal a person’s death in this way must shock us. With the enabling Counsel Marty, we realize how few safeguards exist and how easily they are circumvented. Texas had a protocol, and it was ignored. The abject faith we repose in this system was exposed as child-like; it ultimately depends on the willingness of a judge to be judge rather than executioner.
The complaint against Killer Keller makes a very clear case against her. It tacitly condemns Edward Marty in the process. But what it mostly does is force us to recognize how little stands between one person with an agenda and the subversion of our fabulous legal system. Bit by bit, we realize how fragile the system is, and how little it takes to make it fall apart.
One can view the complaint against Sharon Keller as warning to other judges not to subvert justice to their own will. One can also view the complaint as an lesson on how to subvert the system without getting caught. Was Killer Keller’s fault that she assured the death of Michael Wayne Richard by slamming shut the courthouse doors, or that she wasn’t smart enough to cover her tracks?
The outcome of the inquiry will be interesting, to see whether the Commission has the guts to truly confront a sitting CCA judge, and if so, what they do about her. But there will be another Killer Keller down the road. Will we figure out a way to prevent the next judge with a broken household appliance from making sure someone dies?