San Antonio, TX (January 20, 2010) – On September 25, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection in Baze v. Rees, prompting death penalty lawyers all over the country to file for stays of execution pending the high court’s decision in that case. Advised by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals general counsel that the Texas Defender Service would be filing for a stay in the imminent execution of Michael Richard sometime after the court’s official closing time of 5:00 p.m., Chief Judge Sharon Keller ordered that the clerk’s office be closed at 5:00 and neglected to refer the case to any of the appeals judges in the courthouse, who could have issued an emergency stay. Mr. Richard was executed that evening. As a result, a number of persons and organizations, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, filed complaints against Judge Keller with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which appointed a Special Master to investigate the matter and make findings of fact.
In light of the Special Master’s findings of fact released today, the President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Cynthia Hujar Orr of San Antonio, released the following statement:
We [the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] are encouraged that the special master found that the chief judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals acted in a less than “exemplary” fashion, “exhibited poor judgment” and is unrepentant for her conduct in the Michael Richard death penalty case.
The findings of fact underscore Judge Sharon Keller’s lack of awareness of her responsibility to ensure that the Texas court system is fair and just, and is perceived to be fair and just. The special master was incredulous of her statement under oath that if she could do it all over again she would not change any of her actions. Her words and actions suggest a lack of good judgment in general and grave disrespect for the gravity and finality of the death penalty in particular.
We do, however, expect that the Commission on Judicial Conduct will exercise its independent judgment and come to its own conclusion on the facts of the case. The fact that Judge Keller still cannot see her errors, seeming to suggest that the rest of the Texas legal community is out of step, not she, is the strongest indication that she needs correction from her peers, who along with the high court, have also suffered disrepute and public suspicion from this most unfortunate affair.
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