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Thursday, November 15, 2007

In hours before last execution, a frenzied legal fight

USA TODAY has a long article in today's paper about the Sharon Keller controversy, which is coming out one day before the peoples' protest against Sharon Keller at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

"In hours before last execution, a frenzied legal fight"

By Kevin Johnson

Excerpt:

The defense team's plans began to unravel about 3:15 p.m., when its computer system crashed at the Houston office of the Texas Defender Service, a privately funded group that specializes in death cases. The system crashed as attorneys were drafting the appeals.

The crash cut off electronic contact between Houston and the Texas Defender Service's office in Austin, where paralegals and attorneys were standing by to print the required 10 copies of the documents for delivery to the Texas appeals court before its 5 p.m. closing.

Efforts to repair the computer system failed. By 4:30 p.m., Dow says, the defense team in Austin began alerting the clerk at the state Court of Criminal Appeals about the problem, and the likelihood that Richard's appeal would be late.

Louise Pearson, the court clerk, did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

Defense attorneys say at least four pleas for more time to file Richard's appeal were denied — the last at about 4:48 p.m., after attorneys had regained some computer functions. Dow says his team asked the court about filing the appeal electronically. The request was rejected, he says.

"Everybody in the office was outraged," Dow says.

Less than a half-hour before the scheduled 6 p.m. execution — as the defense team turned to its last option, the Supreme Court — the computer problems flared again.

The lethal-injection appeal took on added importance about 5:30 p.m., when the high court rejected the defense's mental retardation appeal. Dow says the last-ditch lethal injection appeal to the Supreme Court may have been undermined because the Texas court had never ruled on the issue, leaving no record for the Supreme Court to consider.

As defense attorneys raced to overcome technical problems, Wiercioch says he received an unusual telephone call from Texas Assistant Attorney General Baxter Morgan minutes before the 6 p.m. deadline.

Wiercioch says the attorney general's office was aware of the problems plaguing the defense team. He says Morgan called to say that the state still planned to proceed with the execution.

"I said, 'Whoa! Whoa!,' " Wiercioch recalls, adding that he pleaded for more time.

Morgan's response, says Wiercioch: "You've got six minutes."

"It was a stunning conversation," the defense lawyer says. "It was like I was talking to a robot."

Strickland, the spokesman for the attorney general's office, says that "the Texas Defender Service and Greg Wiercioch's recollection and characterization of the conversation are not accurate."

Strickland does not specifically dispute that Morgan referred to a six-minute deadline. He says Morgan's words were mischaracterized as an ultimatum.

"Richard's counsel knew full well that the execution warrant … would be effective as of 6 p.m.," Strickland says.

Even so, Strickland says that immediately after the conversation, the attorney general's office directed prison authorities to suspend the execution until the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in.

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