My thanks to maligned Judge Keller
I'd like to express my gratitude to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.
She has made Texas' supreme court for criminal matters into a better
Unfortunately, she didn't do it by bringing organizational skills to a
court that must deal more than any other state court in the nation with
the pressures of last-minute appeals in death penalty cases.
But she did it.
The firestorm of criticism that followed her decision not to keep the
clerk's office open for a late filing, based on a U.S. Supreme Court
decision from earlier in the day, of a man scheduled to be executed an
hour after closing time, has produced some improvements.
According to her own testimony and that of other court officials during
this week's four-day trial, the court had a protocol for dealing with
execution day filings, but it was something of a secret.
For one thing, it wasn't written.
For another, the court staff was not given any formal training on it.
Part of the procedure was the appointment, on a rotating basis, of a
single judge to whom all communications regarding the pending execution
would be directed. But the name of that judge was not to be disclosed to
anyone outside the court, including lawyers for the condemned man.
In Keller's 7 years as the court's chief judge, that was the state of
Now, due to the allegations that she violated that procedure by not
referring the call seeking to file a late plea for a stay of execution to
Judge Cheryl Johnson, the assigned judge for that execution day, everyone
knows the procedures.
The court's judges, some of whom were waiting around in expectation of a
filing and were angered to learn days later of Keller's actions, agreed to
put the protocol in writing. And the protocol has been widely publicized
in the controversy.
There is another improvement. Ed Marty, the general counsel who took the
request to Keller rather than to Johnson (who testified she would have
accepted late pleadings), retired.
His replacement, Sian Schilhab, said she contacts the appropriate
attorneys days ahead of the prosecution to make sure they know she is
available up until the execution takes place. She said she not only gives
them her cell phone number, but forwards the office phone to her cell.
She also says all outside communications not only "clearly go to the
assigned judge, but I try to communicate them to all the judges, or at
least their staffs."
She said that's not because of the recent controversies, but because "I
believe in more communication rather than less."
If Keller had instructed Marty to do that, we wouldn't have had this
Keller's attorney argued this week that the defense lawyers had
orchestrated media coverage creating the firestorm.
Truth in advertising
The coverage was not always fair and not always accurate, but I'd suggest
that Keller herself made the ground fertile for belief that she would
violate court policy to coldly reject the last-minute appeal.
When she first ran for the court in 1994 she wrote in the Dallas Morning
News that she was "pro-prosecutor." It was truthful advertising.
When DNA evidence showed a man imprisoned for raping a girl who was also
murdered did not contribute the semen, she ruled against his appeal,
saying he might have worn a condom.
When prosecutors put on an expert in another case who testified a
convicted man was a threat to society and therefore should get the death
penalty because he was Hispanic, she voted not to require a new sentencing
proceeding. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
When a district judge ruled that the evidence "unquestionably established"
that a man had been pressured into falsely confessing to raping his
stepdaughter, Keller voted with the minority against his release from
I'll say this for her. She is hard working. In the midst of this week's
trial, she voted not to hear an appeal in a death penalty case. 6 of the 9
members of the all-Republican court voted the other way.
(source: Commentary, Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle)