What Time Will the Doors Close on Sharon Keller

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?

7 thoughts on “What Time Will the Doors Close on Sharon Keller

  1. Shawn McManus

    There’s no doubt that Keller made a grave mistake with the execution protocol and impeachment is likely in order.

    However, Michael Wayne Richard was guilty of raping and murdering Marguerite Dixon and there’s no bringing her back either.

    There are two reasons why I have at least some sympathy for Keller (or rather, apathy for the whole affair in general):

    1. This wasn’t a “surprise execution! Better get your appeals in within the next 20 minutes!” You could just as well fault his defense for waiting so long to put in the last-minute inquiry.

    2. The “mental retardation excuse” is being used by every defender whose client even looks a little stupid. If a person is so retarded that he cannot help but to rape and murder, he needs to die. (Remind me to have a word with the U.S. Supreme Court about this.)

    If this were Larry Swearingen instead of Michael Richard, the attacks on Keller would be better justified.

  2. SHG

    I never thought of you as a moral relativist before.  Does right and wrong change based on how much you like/dislike the person whose life was taken?  This really isn’t about Richard, who standing alone may not be worthy of much concern, but about how a system can be so easily jerked around.

    And, given the growing posts about the failures of scientific evidence, our certainty as to convictions all around are growing increasingly suspect.  The road is going to get much harder now that Balko has smacked us square in the face.  It used to be easy to say, who cares, he’s guilty anyway.  It’s not so easy after Balko’s investigation.

  3. Shawn McManus

    I really try to be impartial. I like to think that it doesn’t but I would by lying to myself if I said that it absolutely makes no difference.

    In this case though, it isn’t so much a matter of like v. dislike but instead guilty v. not guilty.

    MWR was guilty and everything his defenses have done seem to be nothing more than delaying. (This doesn’t excuse Keller’s action of course.)

    As to scientific evidence, if there is any doubt regarding it, an execution should at least be stayed until it is resolved. If it cannot be resolved, then there likely shouldn’t be an execution. I say ‘likely’ because there may be exceptions even to this.

    Here are my problems with the defense-side of this case:

    1. As stated, mental retardation should not be grounds for letting a murderer live (my opinion of course).

    2. It isn’t the purvue of SCOTUS to rule on states’ capital punishment (beyond equal protection under the law, etc.). In this case, their ruling that the mentally retarded cannot be executed shouldn’t have any bearing on the case.

    3. A retrial was granted based on faulty jury instruction Which shouldn’t have happened in the first place but when looking at the facts of the case, even this seems to be frivolous. Why didn’t the defense say that the jury was being given false instruction during the original trial?

    “Yes” it bothers me that the Texas system was so easily “broken”.

    Much as I hate to admit it, “yes” given this case’s history, I’m not getting worked up over Keller’s case.

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