It was impossible not to gasp last week when Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller addressed the question of what she would do differently if she had a do-over in the execution of Michael Richard.
Nothing. That was the essence of Keller’s answer at her misconduct trial. It is as disturbing now as it was when news broke of her infamous “we close at 5” directive to court personnel minutes before Richard’s execution was scheduled to be carried out in September 2007.
Her defense is built on a thinly sliced interpretation of procedures that offend the expectation that Texas courts should be accessible and blindly fair.
Keller’s supporters may ask what fairness Richard showed to 53-year-old Houston-area nurse Marguerite Lucille Dixon when he entered her home, raped her and shot her in the head. Answer: none. Nor have we seen evidence to question his guilt.
That’s not the point. Instead, consider that the next person with a last-minute appeal might have compelling information about the miscarriage of justice. Anyone who is aware of Texas’ record number of DNA exonerations should be mindful of that.
Keller asserts that Richard’s attorneys should have known that her statement about closing pertained only to the courthouse doors and not to a duty judge who was working late. Appellate attorneys were having computer problems and were scrambling against the filing deadline. But it appears that even court personnel have had differing interpretations of the events of that evening.
No matter; as the presiding judge, she should have made sure there were no gray areas where life-and-death matters were concerned that night. Procedures guaranteeing last-minute access should be enunciated to any involved party as time runs out. The court must not assume general understanding and merely recite technicalities.
Revised court procedures in the wake of the Richard case suggested that the nine-member court knew change was due. Weeks later, the judges issued written guidelines including a new e-filing system for death appeals.
Despite those improvements made in her own court, Keller’s testimony indicated no regrets about that night, amplifying her reputation as a pro-prosecution judge indifferent to fair play. Like it or not, she made herself the face of Texas courts in 2007. Unfortunately, her testimony last week did nothing to dispel the notion that ours is a callous system of justice.