You mad, Judge? Angry too, but this borders on basic everyday crazy. Harris County District Court Judge Mary Lou Keel got a hate on the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.
It was by accident in 2012 that the Texas Department of Public Safety stumbled upon a troubling discovery affecting the validity of nearly 5,000 drug cases across Texas: One of its analysts at a Houston crime lab had intentionally falsified lab results.
“Troubling” is an understatement. Given that falsified lab results occurred in 5,000 cases (read, the lives of 5,000 human beings), it was probably a bit more than troubling to the folks in prison, not to mention their kids. This is the sort of thing that anyone with at least a tenuous grasp of reality would recognize as demanding quick and firm remediation. But given that number, nearly 5,000, it was a huge logistical problem.
Soon, after further review of the analyst’s full body of work since 2006, DPS cautioned district attorneys across the state that nearly 4,900 cases — all of those that the analyst, Jonathan Salvador, had tested — could be in jeopardy due to his fabrications. Four hundred of them were in Harris County, leading the district attorney’s office to ask the Harris County Public Defender’s Office to help represent potentially hundreds of defendants in new trials, according to a 2014 memo obtained by the Houston Press.
Harris County has a mixed approach to the representation of the indigent, with some cases assigned to the Public Defender’s Office and others to private indigent defenders. With about 400 cases coming out of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, every one of which involved the same issue of Salvador fabricating results and sought the same remedy, there were two ways to deal with it. Either reach out individually to each lawyer, or each defendant, and reinvent the wheel, or dump the problem in the Public Defender’s lap and ask him to deal with the fiasco. They chose the latter.
Two years later, however, because of a dispute that arose between State District Judge Mary Lou Keel and the public defender’s office about how, or even if, public defenders were allowed to help those 400 people get new trials, Keel has since then refused to work with any public defenders. In at least two years, she has appointed only one in her court. And today, she accuses the public defender’s office of lying to her, saying they were not trying to help those defendants in the interest of justice, but only to “make themselves look good.”
Not all Harris County judges. Just one: Mary Lou Keel. What infuriated Judge Keel? The public defender didn’t come to her first and ask for her permission. How dare they just help 400 defendants convicted on fabricated labs without bowing to Keel? What if some of those defendants weren’t indigent? Oh noes, defendants imprisoned on fabricated labs might get a free ride!!!
“They think, ‘oh, we’re doing all this great work. We’re gonna be the hero,’” says Keel, who is running in the upcoming election for the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the state’s highest criminal appellate court. “They certainly wanted to take on all these easy cases — it makes their stats look good. If they can get a bunch of these slam-dunk writs where almost everybody’s going to be granted relief, yeah, they got carried away — but not out of the goodness of their heart.”
This sounds . . . totally insane. The Harris County Public Defender doesn’t need more business. It doesn’t make extra loot by enhancing its reputation as a hero, drawing in those big money clients. It makes their stats look good? To whom? Their funding doesn’t magically appear by clueless infidels from Norway, and this wasn’t exactly a secret situation that nobody involved in Texas knew about.
But most importantly, even if the public defender should have gone on bended knee to Judge Keel and begged for her mercy in allowing a single entity to overcome the logistical nightmare of dealing with 400 defendants convicted on fabricated evidence, did it warrant this level of insanity?
It is an accusation that the public defender’s office strongly denies, saying that Keel blew a simple misunderstanding out of proportion, severing their otherwise productive relationship (even Keel says she used to be their “best customer”). “We were trying to make sure that justice was done, so I don’t know how that’s self-serving,” said Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin. “And it wasn’t really our idea. If you talk to anyone at the DA’s office, they’ll say they asked us to do this.”
There are few people around who get as much cred as Alex Bunin. The guy is as modest and low-key as any lawyer I’ve ever known. Even when he is an actual, honest-to-god hero, you can’t get him to admit it. That’s the kind of guy he is, and always has been.
Even if Keel got her butthurt on about the public defender not being sufficiently obsequious and respecting her authoritah, that would perhaps explain a stern talking to, maybe a week in the doghouse. But this has been going on now for two years, where Judge Keel has refused to allow the Public Defender to represent indigent defendants in her courtroom.
But what’s Keel got to gain from her bizarre tantrum against the public defender’s office?
Keel is running on the Republican ticket for Place 2 on the Court of Criminal Appeals. She hopes to replace Democratic incumbent Larry Meyers, the only Democrat on the high court’s bench and only Democrat in Texas’s 29 statewide elected offices. Asked if she had anything to say about her race, she said, “If I get elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the PD won’t have to worry anymore about me catching them.”
And Sharon “Killer” Keller won’t be lonely having a cocktail after she closes the courthouse doors on execution day? While it may well be in the Harris County Public Defender’s best interest to have Judge Keel anywhere but Houston, do the people of Texas really want this nutjob on their highest criminal court?
It’s not just her intemperance, or even her misguided arrogance that shifts the wrong done by Salvador onto Alex Bunin’s lawyers, but that she’s blown up the pettiest of microaggressions into a two-year (and counting) judicial hissy fit.
Update: The Texas Tornado digs deeper. Mark Bennett, who is far closer to the action than I am (and also happens to be running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) offers greater insight into both Alex, Keel and this sordid crap.