On September 25, 2007, the morning of the day Michael Wayne Richard was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would stay another lethal injection until it decided a case challenging the use of the execution practice altogether. Richard’s attorneys began frantically drafting motions to delay his execution as well.
Although the Supreme Court eventually halted lethal injections nationwide while its case on the matter was pending, Richard was executed after Texas’ highest criminal judge allegedly blocked his attorneys from seeking relief in her court. Now, Judge Sharon Keller, Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could lose her job for intentionally denying a death row inmate access to the court system.
In a judicial misconduct proceeding similar to the one which removed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from office, Keller is accused of intentionally deceiving Richard’s attorneys to prevent them from seeking a stay of execution. At 4:45pm on the day of Richard’s execution, his attorneys asked the court if they could file the documents after the clerk’s office closed at 5pm. Judge Keller told court staff to relay a message that the clerk’s office would close at 5. Although literally true, Keller’s message concealed the fact that a member of the court was on duty to hear emergency after-hours motions — had the attorneys known this, they would have filed the as yet incomplete motion.
Although it is unlikely that Keller’s court would have granted a stay of execution her actions also prevented the U.S. Supreme Court from granting such a stay. As a general rule, the Supremes will not hear a case unless the person seeking relief first appeals to the appropriate lower courts. Moreover, the Richard incident is only the latest black-eye for the state with the nation’s most frequently used death chambers. Although the Supreme Court hears less than seventy cases in a given Term, it recently blocked four Texas executions in a single Term.
Although much of the blame for Texas’ frequent and often-unjustified death sentences rests with state lawmakers, the Texas courts deserve a fair chunk as well. Judge Keller’s Court of Criminal Appeals has been labeled the “worst court in Texas” for disregarding DNA evidence, tolerating confessions extracted by the threat of torture and ignoring outright malpractice by criminal defense attorneys. In one instance, the court disregarded such an overwhelming weight of evidence proving a man to be innocent that its decision inspired a pardon by then-Governor George W. Bush.
Nor is Keller the only person of questionable fitness to have sat on the state’s highest criminal court. In 1994, Texans elected a unknown lawyer of little distinction named Stephen Mansfield to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Judge Mansfield lied about his qualifications on the campaign trial, claiming, falsely that he was an experienced criminal attorney and hiding the fact that he was once cited for practicing law without a license; and he campaigned on an explicit promise to execute more prisoners if elected. He was not reelected in 2000, but only after he was convicted of illegally scalping tickets during his tenure as a sitting judge.
Normally when justice breaks down at the state level, federal courts are trusted to fill the gap by granting habeas relief to the wrongfully convicted and excessively sentenced. Texans, however, must seek justice from the ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit, a court which once upheld the conviction and death sentence of a man whose attorney slept through his trial (to it’s credit, the Fifth Circuit eventually reversed this decision after months of criticism).
So Texas’ criminal judiciary has, for years, been dominated by a bench of kneejerk conservatives with little if any adult supervision. Hopefully, Judge Keller’s trial will remind them that they can’t ignore the law forever.