State panel opens case over last-minute appeal
A state judicial conduct commission is launching proceedings that could
result in the removal of the top criminal courts judge from office for
bringing "public discredit" on the courts by refusing to accept an appeal
from a death row inmate hours before his execution.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct today filed 7 charges of
misconduct against Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Chief Justice Sharon
Keller declined to comment. She has 15 days to file a formal response with
The commission said Keller willfully and persistently failed to follow
court procedures and state constitutional protections in her handling of
the last-minute appeals of death row inmate Michael Wayne Richard.
Richard was 49 when he was executed for the 1986 Harris County sexual
assault and shooting death of nurse Marguerite Lucille Dixon.
Richards lawyers had wanted a stay because the U.S. Supreme Court on the
morning of his scheduled Sept. 25, 2007, execution had agreed to hear a
case questioning whether lethal injection amounted to cruel and unusual
Richard's lawyers called the court's general counsel to say computer
problems would prevent them from filing before the court clerk's office
closed at 5 p.m. and to ask if they could have more time. The counsel
called Keller at home, and she said no, cutting off Richard's state
The commission said Keller did not follow court procedure because Judge
Cheryl Johnson was assigned to handle Richard's appeals and was at the
court waiting for them. The commission said Keller should have referred
the counsels call to Johnson.
Because the appeal did not get filed, Richard was executed. But 2 other
death row inmates with similar appeals received stays of execution during
the following week from the U.S. Supreme Court on similar appeals.
While the commission has issued sanctions against members of the statewide
judiciary in the past, this is the 1st case in that could result in a
public trial and possible removal of a statewide judge.
More than 300 Texas lawyers filed complaints with the commission seeking
Keller's removal from office.
Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of the lead lawyers
filing the complaint, said the commission's action is "pretty amazing."
Harrington said the commission's charges shows an in-depth investigation
had occurred and found that Keller misled her fellow Court of Criminal
Appeals judges about her actions in the Richard case.
The formal proceedings said the judges gathered the morning after the
Richard execution and that Judge Cathy Cochran expressed surprise that
Richard had not appealed based on the Supreme Courts actions.
"Judge Keller did not disclose to the other judges her communications with
(the courts general counsel) the night before nor the fact that Mr.
Richard's lawyers had called the CCA to ask whether filings after 5 p.m.
could be accepted," the brief said.
The charges will result in a public trial of Keller by a special master
who will then report to the commission so it can decide whether the case
should be dropped. Keller should be sanctioned or removed from office,
said commission Executive Director Seana Willing.
(source: Houston Chronicle)