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20 Minutes and 2 Phone Calls May Be the Death Knell for Chief Justice Sharon Keller of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Say what you like, no one who gets a philosophy degree from Rice University can be anything but brilliant.

Justice Sharon Keller got hers back in 1975 (and her law degree from SMU in 1978). So how could someone so smart do something so, so stupid?

It’s All About Twenty Minutes – Just 20 Minutes

Back on September 25, 2007, the United States Supreme Court announced that it was going to consider whether or not lethal injections were a constitutional way to impose the death penalty. (The federal constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment … which is why we don’t have electric chairs for capital punishment anymore.)

That same day, here in Texas, attorneys for a man on death row – name of Michael Richard – worked feverishly to finalize the necessary documents to halt his execution, which was scheduled for that day, September 25, 2007.

They were drafting a Motion to Stay his execution, based upon the announcement by the U.S. Supreme Court — after all, if the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection was unconstitutional, then it shouldn’t be used for Michael Richard.

Imagine the tension in that office that day. The hurry, the pressure. And then the computer screws up. (Of course it did – doesn’t this happen to you, too, when you’re on a deadline?)

So, these zealous defense attorneys call over to the Clerk’s office for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. They ask the Clerk to keep the doors open for twenty minutes — just 20 minutes — so they can file their Motion to Stay.

Justice Keller said no. And, all because of this 20 minute gap in time, Michael Richard died that day, by lethal injection. At 6 p.m.

It’s Also About Two Phone Calls

Well, after word got around that Chief Justice Keller (she is not only on the high court, she is the chief justice for the high court) had said no, and Richard had died – things began happening.

For one thing, the Commission for Judicial Conduct began a year-long investigation. And, it’s from the CJC’s results that we know a little more about what happened that day.

First, everyone at the Court of Criminal Appeals knew that the Motion for Stay was coming, because around two o’clock that afternoon, they got an email that told them it was on its way, based upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement earlier that day.

The justices took a little vote amongst themselves, even before they got the Motion, and came down 5-4 that they were going to turn down the stay request when it did turn up. And then, Justice Cheryl Johnson and three other justices worked to prepare for the motion they were expecting … everyone at the court knew this motion was on its way, and that Richard was scheduled to die at six o’clock that day.

Chief Justice Keller went home to meet a repairman.

And here’s the story about the first phone call, from CJC report per the Austin American Statesman:

[Court General Counsel] Marty picked up the phone to relay the request to Keller. … It was a short conversation, but they dispute what was said. Marty recalls saying that Richard’s lawyers “wanted the court to stay open late.” Keller says Marty asked only about keeping the clerk’s office open past 5 p.m. — not the court — and that her answer reflected common practice: All clerks went home at closing time. “No,” she told Marty.

Then, the second phone call:

Shortly after 5 p.m., Keller telephoned Marty to ask whether Richard’s lawyers had filed anything. The answer was no.

It’s not clear when Justice Johnson and the other judges found out about the request for 20 minutes. And, it’s not clear why Marty routed the call to Keller, at home, instead of Justice Johnson, who was on rotation to hear the motion.

The Trial of Justice Sharon Keller

Charges have been filed against Justice Keller with the Commission for Judicial Conduct, although no trial date has been set. She’s accused of five violations of either the Texas Constitution or the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. And her fate (exoneration, reprimand, or removal) will be decided by an as-yet-unknown specially appointed judge. It will be a public proceeding.

The Impeachment of Justice Sharon Keller

Her trial may not happen for over a year, and that’s not soon enough for Fort Worth State Representative Lon Burnam. He’s filed a resolution before the Texas House, asking that the legislative body investigate these events, and if the House finds cause for impeachment, then the Texas Senate will hold an impeachment trial.

An Odd Balance

Somehow, all this seems very, very odd. At the worst, Justice Keller loses her job. She’ll get another one.

Balance that against Michael Richard.


New York Times

Austin American Statesman

Dallas Morning News

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – Justice Keller web page

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