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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Texas DAs to Blame for High Execution Rate

The New York Times has an article today "Executions Decline Elsewhere, but Texas Holds Steady" that explains why district attorney elections in 2008 in Travis County and Harris County, as well as other Texas counties, are so important in the effort to slow down or stop executions in a flawed Texas capital punishment system that puts innocent people at risk of execution.

Unlike other states where the number of executions have declined, in Texas execution dates are set by aggressive district attorneys asking convicting courts to set the date. If we want to slow down the number of executions in Texas, we need to elect district attorneys who will pledge to impose a moratorium on seeking new death sentences and a moratorium on setting execution dates for existing death sentences.

Adam Liptak writes in the NYT:

This year’s death-penalty bombshells — a federal moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade — have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with only 18 executions nationwide.

But this year, enthusiasm for executions outside of Texas dropped sharply. Of last year’s 42 executions, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say that trend is likely to continue.

Indeed, said David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented death row inmates, the day is not far off when essentially all executions in the United States will take place in Texas.

“The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions,” he said, “is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have.”
The article goes on to point out that death sentences are declining here in Texas as they have been across the country:
In the 10 years ending in 2004, Texas condemned an average of 34 prisoners each year — about 15 percent of the national total. In the last three years, as the number of death sentences nationwide dropped significantly, from almost 300 in 1998 to about 110 in 2007, the number in Texas has dropped along with it, to 13 — or 12 percent.
The big difference though is that in Texas execution dates are set by convicting courts at the request of district attorneys and in Texas there are some DAs who set lots of execution dates.
“Any sane prosecutor who is involved in capital litigation will really be ambivalent about it,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. He said the families of murder victims suffer needless anguish during what can be decades of litigation and multiple retrials.

“We’re seeing fewer executions,” Mr. Marquis added. “We’re seeing fewer people sentenced to death. People really do question capital punishment. The whole idea of exoneration has really penetrated popular culture.”

As a consequence, Mr. Dieter said, “we’re simply not regularly using the death penalty as a country.”

So while the number of executions in Texas been relatively constant, averaging 23, the state’s share of total executions nationwide has steadily increased: from 32 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2007.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Smoking Gun in Sharon Keller Fiasco: Full Text of Policies She Violated

Texas Moratorium Network submitted a Public Information Request to Sharon Keller to receive a copy of the letter she wrote to the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe in response to Ratcliffe's own PIR. Ratcliffe wrote his story on his PIR on Dec 13 ("Judge in death case violated policies: Keller, who shut out appeal, says new written rules reflect unwritten ones on that day"). He wrote that "Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller apparently violated court policies for handling death penalty cases when she closed the court clerk's doors on Michael Richard's efforts to file a last-minute appeal before his execution."

Ratcliffe's reporting seems to have uncovered the smoking gun admission that Keller broke the CCA's policies in effect on the day of Richard's execution. He should be given some sort of journalism award for his work. We congratulate him on his idea of asking for the policies in effect on Sept 25. His article left us wanting to see the entire text of the policies ourselves, so we submitted our own PIR.

Reading the entire text of the policies makes it very clear that Keller violated the rules by not contacting the assigned duty judge about the request by Richard's lawyers to file a late appeal. The consequences of her action should be for her to resign immediately or if she lacks the integrity to resign on her own, then the State Commission on Judicial Conduct should compel her to resign.

We will send a copy to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct of Keller's letter to Ratcliffe and of the document "Execution-day Procedures". We hope the Commission has already obtained a copy, but just in case, we will send them our copy, along with another 250 or so new names of people who have signed our judicial complaint against Keller since we first submitted about 1600 names on Nov 16.

Read the policies and judge for yourselves if she violated them. Here is a link to a pdf of the document we received from the Court.

Execution-day Procedures

A designated judge will be assigned to be in charge of each scheduled execution. Generally, judges will be assigned in rotating seniority order by the general counsel. Exceptions in order of assignment will be made for prior involvement in the death-row inmate's case as trial judge, prosecutor, or defense counsel, or for recusal. Judges may also trade assignments, with notice to all other judges and general counsel, for other good cause such as anticipated absence from court on the day of execution. Unless the Court has been informed by defense counsel that no pleadings will be filed, or pleadings have been filed and ruled on, general counsel shall be present at the Court on the date of the scheduled execution until the time of execution has passed. The assigned judge shall be present at the Court, or immediately available, on the date of the scheduled execution until the time of execution has passed. Support staff may be requested to remain, also, as needed.

All communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge. The term “communications” includes pleadings, telephone calls, faxes, emails, and any other means of communication with the Court. The assigned judge may call a special conference or gather votes by telephone, email, fax, or other form of communication.

If the communication includes a request for stay of execution, the assigned judge shall contact, by any reasonable means, the other members of the Court and request a vote on the motion to stay. Non-assigned judges will provide to the assigned judge an adequate means of contact. "Reasonable means" includes calling a special conference and contact by electronic communication.


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Info on First Two Travis County DA Candidates to File

We are going to be very active in the race for Travis County District Attorney, as we attempt to ensure that the voters of Travis County elect a district attorney who will pledge not to seek the death penalty at least during the initial four-year term in office. So far, two people have officially filed for district attorney, Gary Cobb and Rick Reed. We haven't yet seen if they have put up websites yet, but they provided contact information when they filed. We also don't yet know any of their positions, but we will post more information as we learn it. We encourage people to send in any information they have on any announced or possible candidates in the race.

Here is Gary Cobb's contact information:

P.O. Box 142416, Austin, TX 78714
512-854-9400 (O) 512-899-1765 (H)


Here is Rick Reed's contact information:

512-854-9400 (O) 512-292-0313 (H)
11614 Anatole Court, Austin, TX 78748

Here is what the Austin American-Statesman said about the two in a recent profile on possible candidates in the race.


Rick Reed, 52

The first candidate to file for district attorney, submitting the paperwork Friday after Earle's announcement.

Reed grew up in Dallas and attended UT before graduating from the Southern Methodist University School of Law. Reed worked as a Dallas County felony prosecutor from 1986 until 1998, when he ran for district attorney. After losing that race, Reed went to work for Earle.

He is one of the lawyers who has worked on the money-laundering case against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

If elected district attorney, Reed said, he wants to expand the use of drug courts to divert more people charged with possession charges into treatment, freeing up more prosecutors for other crimes. He also wants to decentralize decision-making in the office, giving front-line prosecutors more discretion over their cases.

The Austin Political Report says that Reed "once served under legendary Dallas DAs Henry Wade and John Vance." Dallas County has been exonerating people regularly who were wrongfully prosecuted under Wade and Vance, so one question with his candidacy was what did he learn up there in Dallas under those two former DA's and did he have a role in any cases where the person was wrongfully convicted.

Gary Cobb, 46

Grew up in Mississippi before attending the University of Texas School of Law from 1983 to 1986. He's been a prosecutor at the Travis County district attorney's office since 1990.

Among his many prosecutions, Cobb got a life sentence against George Weldon Smith, a Del Valle youth coach, for sexually abusing a young boy for four years. He also prosecuted Celeste Beard, who was sentenced to life for plotting to have her wealthy husband killed for his money.

Cobb said he would encourage prosecutors to get involved in the community to build trust.

"Ronnie Earle has established a tradition of responding to the community," Cobb said. "We need to be more pro-active."

Over on the Austin Political Report, a commenter said that Cobb "was the chief prosecutor against Lacresha Murray, an 11 year old girl charged with murder. Cobb used a coerced confession to convict. The case was later thrown out by a Republican appeals court. Murray is now suing in federal court. You can read Bob Herbert’s article in 11.22.98 NYT. My bet is Travis County voters aren’t going to forget that case. We insist that our elected officials be fair, especially when kids are involved."

We don't know if that commenter had it right about Cobb's role in the Murray case, but when we meet him we will ask him what his role in that case was.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Time for Travis County to End Another Old South Legacy

CNN's headline says "Executions drop in '07 as states rethink death penalty". According to the article, 42 people were executed in 2007, a 13 year low. The drop is in part due due to the Baze decision that was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court. There was only one execution after the Court accepted that case, Michael Richard was the last person executed this year on Sept 25, although his execution likely could have been halted as well, if Sharon Keller had not said "We close at 5".

"Texas continues to lead the nation, with 62 percent of executions nationwide this year. Overall, 86 percent this year were in the South", says the report.

The question for Travis County voters in the upcoming election for District Attorney is whether they are ready to turn the page on this legacy of the Old South and elect a District Attorney who will pledge not to seek the death penalty. Texas Moratorium Network has submitted a Public Information Request to Ronnie Earle's office asking for the number of death penalty prosecutions and convictions during his tenure. I expect to see a similar pattern to the national numbers showing a decline. The next district attorney should pledge to reduce the number of new death sentences from Travis County to zero and instead use life without the possibility of parole as an alternative.

In other death penalty news:

In 2007, the Texas Legislature expanded the death penalty to apply to second offenses of child sexual assault. Many people said that bill would probably be found to be unconstitutional. We will soon find out if they were right. "The U.S. Supreme Court on January 4 will decide whether to review an appeal from Louisiana inmate Patrick Kennedy, sentenced to death in 2003 for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter." says CNN.

The people of Texas are probably tired of seeing Texas legislators expand capital punishment while refusing to expand access to health care or higher education. Executing more people may have been high on the agenda of the Republicans who took control of the Texas House in 2003, but if the Democrats take back control in 2008, you can expect to see more action on health care and education and no more time wasted passing unconstitutional bills expanding the death penalty.

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Barrett Wins Bodes Well for Democrats to Win Big Gains in 2008

The upset by Democrat Dan Barrett yesterday in the race for a Texas House seat from a Fort Worth district that usually votes Republican is more evidence that 2008 is going to be a big year for Democrats, who could finally break the all-Republican hold on the Texas Court of Criminals Appeals, if they field some good candidates.

If well-qualified Democrats run for the three Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seats that are on the ballot in 2008, they might all win. This is the "Worst Court in Texas" according to Texas Monthly; it should be the easiest statewide race for a Democrat to win.

Where are the candidates? It is time to show yourselves.

Matt Glazer wrote a post on BOR about "What Dan Barrett's Victory Means for Texas", Excerpt:

In 2006, Democrats won 6 seats plus Donna Howard's special election. In 2007 we welcomed Kirk England to the Democratic Party and now we have Dan Barrett as member of our caucus as well. We've not even yet had a single vote cast the 2008 primaries, and there are now 71 Democrats in Texas House- a stunning and speedy reversal based on the same map that was drawn to have only 42 Democratic seats.

Yesterday's election in Fort Worth was a runoff between a Democrat and multiple Republicans even though only one Republican in name was on the ballot. It was a race between the Democrat fighting for fair representation and the Republican Speaker and his possible enabler. Dan Barrett vs. Tom Craddick and his crony Mark Shelton.

House District 97 was not drawn to be a Democratic seat. In 2006, Barrett had taken on the recently retired Anna Mowery and claimed only 40.82% of the vote. Tarrant County on the whole only gave Barbara Radnofsky, the U.S. Senate nominee, 34.80%, Chris Bell 31.07% in his bid for Governor, and the bell weather Texas Supreme Court candidate Bill Moody 42.79% of the vote. The Republican's should have won this election based on the poor democratic performance index (DPI) of the district alone. During the special election yesterday, Barrett won with 52.2% of the vote.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Jersey Abolishes Death Penalty, Inspires Campaign for de facto Abolition in Travis County

There is a developing campaign in Austin to use the upcoming election of a new Travis County District Attorney to elect a district attorney who will pledge never to seek the death penalty and to use life without parole as an alternative. The current DA, Ronnie Earle, has just announced his retirement after 30 years in office.

Read more from Scott Cobb on Burnt Orange Report: "Next Travis County DA Should Take the Death Penalty Off the Table":

The next DA in Travis County should reflect how the Travis County community's feelings on the death penalty have evolved since 1976 and pledge that the death penalty is off the table within Travis County.

Last October when Paul Burka first reported that Earle may be retiring, Burka wrote that "a DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community", which brings up the issue of to what extent the conscience of the community in Travis County has changed since 1976.

I expect it has changed enough that any person who seeks the Democratic nomination for Travis County District Attorney in 2008 is going to have to seek the support of voters within a community whose conscience does not include support for the Texas death penalty. Of course, there are voters here who support the death penalty in theory, but there are many more whose theoretical support is trumped by their disgust with how the death penalty operates in Texas. And in Travis County, there is also a substantial bloc of voters who reject the death penalty both in theory and as it is practiced.


New Jersey Abolishes Death Penalty, Sparks Talks Of Change In Texas
KXAN, Dec. 18, 2007

Link

Austin - New Jersey became the first state in four decades to abolish the death penalty on Monday. Governor Jon Corzine signed the measure Monday, replacing executions with life in prison without parole.

"Now make no mistake," Corzine said. "By this action, society is not forgiving these heinous crimes or acts that have caused immeasurable pain to these families and brought fear to society. The perpetrators of these actions deserve absolutely no sympathy and the criminals deserve the strictest punishment that can be imposed, without imposing death."

Among the eight men on death row whose lives were spared by Monday's action is the man whose murder of a 7-year-old girl inspired "Megan's Law," which helps people keep track of sex offenders living in their towns.

At least five other states are considering abolishing the death sentence. Texas is not among them.

Death penalty opponents in Austin believe Monday's decision to abolish the death sentence in New Jersey is another indication that the tide is turning.

An announcement out of the Criminal Justice Complex last week seems to be rallying death penalty opponents in Travis County.

For the first time in three decades, a new district attorney will be prosecuting cases here.

"The death penalty system is broken in Texas, and we as voters in Travis County have an opportunity to say, 'Because it's broken, we're not going to use it,'" said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network.

Cobb said the announcement that District Attorney Ronnie Earle will not seek re-election was tantamount to a rallying cry for death penalty opponents in Travis County, who are now determined to hit the campaign trail.

"We think the people of Travis County are ready to abolish the death penalty in Travis County and that's our challenge to whoever runs for District Attorney," Cobb said.

Death penalty proponents, such as the group Justice For All, believe abolishing the death penalty would lead to higher murder rates in Texas.

There are 371 people on death row in Texas.

Seven inmates scheduled to be executed this year received last-minute stays due to concerns about their possible innocence, the fairness of their trials or issues related to the Supreme Court's review of lethal injection.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Texas Judge "Killer" Keller Admits Justice Does Not "Close at 5"

A commenter here has provided a link to a copy of Sharon Keller's request to dismiss the lawsuit against her filed by Michael Richard's wife.

Keller claims in the motion that there was no reason for her to order the court to stay open because other judges on the CCA could have been contacted directly, whether the clerk's office was open or closed. She does not explain in the motion to dismiss, however, why she did not tell the court's clerk to tell Richard's lawyers to contact the duty judge or why she did not tell the clerk to inform the duty judge that the lawyers wanted to submit an appeal.

Keller told the lawyers for Richard "We close at 5". This was a lie, because according to her own admission, the duty judge and any judge on the CCA can accept after hours submissions. It is also a lie because she acknowledges in her motion to dismiss that she had the authority to keep the clerk's office open after 5, but she chose not to.

A truthful statement would have been, "We close at 5, but I have the authority as presiding judge to keep the court open past five in order to accept your appeal or you may just contact the duty judge on this case who is Judge Cheryl Johnson and here is her phone number".

In the course of arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because she was acting in her official capacity, Keller admits that she has the authority as presiding judge to keep the court's clerks open after 5pm. Excerpt:

Texas statutory law provides that the normal office hours of a state agency are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. It also authorizes, but does not require, the chief administrator of a state agency to keep offices open during other hours if the administrator “considers it necessary or advisable.” Thus, under Texas Law, the CCA closes at 5 p.m. unless Judge Keller exercises her discretion in her capacity as Presiding Judge to keep the court open.
and
Only Presiding Judge Keller had the authority to keep the clerk’s office open beyond the state-mandated hours. However, as discussed above, she was under no duty or obligation to do so
since any CCA judge could have accepted the filing. Richard did not need the clerk’s office to remain open because he could file his motion with the judges that Plaintiff admits remained at the CCA past 5 p.m.
In response to a request for public information to her from the Houston Chronicle, Keller admits that she broke the unwritten rules of the court. For that breach of the rules, she should be removed from office.

Excerpt from Chronicle: 

In its public information request, the Chronicle asked for the state appeals court procedures for handling death penalty cases on the day of Richard's execution.


"No written policies regarding those matters existed on that date (Sept. 25)," Keller wrote. "Subsequent to that date, the court reduced to writing the unwritten policies that did exist on that date."


The written policy the court later adopted said the judge assigned to the case should stay on duty on the day of an execution until the execution occurs. The policy also said "all communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge."

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Sharon Keller steps in it again: Will she be held accountable?

It was a big week in the fight to hold Keller responsible for her unethical behavior in the "We close at 5" fiasco. The Houston Chronicle wrote two news articles with new information from Keller herself and today Rick Casey comments on the situation in his column.

Casey's column today "Death judge broke rules" asks if Sharon Keller will be held accountable. The evidence is mounting that Keller broke the rules of her court and so she certainly should be punished. In fact, since her behavior resulted in the death of a person, which can not be reversed, she should be sanctioned with the most severe punishment, including removal from office.

Casey's column is in response to an earlier article by R.G. Ratcliffe on Dec 13th in the Chronicle (Judge in death case violated policies") that reported that she admits there was an unwritten policy and she broke it.

Excerpt from Casey's Sunday column:

Yet in response to public information requests from the Houston Chronicle and at least two lawyers, Keller herself disclosed a contrary policy that was in place on that day, though it wasn't set down in writing until later.

The policy required that one of the court's nine judges "be assigned to be in charge of each scheduled execution."

"Unless the Court has been informed by defense counsel that no pleadings will be filed, or pleadings have been filed and ruled on," both that judge and the court's general counsel must be available "until the time of execution has passed."

In other words, unless the condemned person's lawyers notified them otherwise, the court's policy was to assume there would be last-minute appeals and to be ready to receive them.

Part of the policy was carried out. Judge Cheryl Johnson was assigned to be the judge in charge, and made herself available to be contacted.

The policy also required that "all communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge." That specifically includes "telephone calls."

Johnson expressed anger that she was not alerted of the attempt to appeal. By the time she learned of it from media accounts, Richard was dead.
In another article on Dec 14 in the Chronicle "Judge wants wrongful death lawsuit dropped", reporter Lisa Sandberg reported on a motion by Keller to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit against her. Keller's new story is that Richard's lawyers could have contacted any other of the judges on the court and submitted their appeal. But instead of her telling them that they could contact another judge, such as the duty judge, she instructed her clerk to tell them "We close at 5". That is where she broke the policy. She should have told the clerk to inform the duty judge of their request to submit an appeal.

Excerpt from Sandberg's article:
But in a motion, Keller said Texas law "provides a clear and unambiguous avenue for litigants to file documents with the (Court of Criminal Appeals) directly through any of its judges, so Richard did not need the CCA clerk's office to stay open after hours to file his motion."

This is the first time Keller has claimed Richard's lawyers could have directly gone to other judges on the court. She previously has tried to shift blame to Richard's lawyers by saying they had all day to file.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Next Travis County DA Should Take the Death Penalty Off the Table

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is retiring. He was first elected in 1976. The next DA in Travis County should reflect how the Travis County community's feelings on the death penalty have evolved since 1976 and pledge that the death penalty is off the table within Travis County.

Last October when Paul Burka first reported that Earle may be retiring, Burka wrote that "a DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community", which brings up the issue of to what extent the conscience of the community in Travis County has changed since 1976.

I expect it has changed enough that any person who seeks the Democratic nomination for Travis County District Attorney in 2008 is going to have to seek the support of voters within a community whose conscience does not include support for the Texas death penalty. Of course, there are voters here who support the death penalty in theory, but there are many more whose theoretical support is trumped by their disgust with how the death penalty operates in Texas. And in Travis County, there is also a substantial bloc of voters who reject the death penalty both in theory and as it is practiced.

I am certain that a big majority of Democratic voters, if not all voters, in Travis County believe that the death penalty system in Texas is broken.

There is a precedent already in Texas for a district attorney to declare a county-wide moratorium on death penalty prosecutions. The Nueces County District Attorney’s Office put a hold on seeking the death penalty in capital murder cases last October in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case that questions whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

But I expect the people of Travis County know that the problems with the death penalty system are bigger and deeper than just the issue of how a lethal injection is administered. The Texas death penalty system is riddled with problems from start to finish, from the initial investigation and arrest, the process used to decide whether to seek the death penalty, the actual prosecution and defense of a capital trial, the appeals process and the manner in which an execution is finally carried out.

The most fundamental problem is perhaps an inability to distinguish with certainty whether a person is guilty or innocent. If a system can not ensure that the guilty are convicted and the innocent protected, then the death penalty should be off the table. The need for local prosecutors to impose a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions is particularly great because of the failure of state leaders to enact a moratorium and create a commission to study the death penalty. In fact, the state legislature would not even create an innocence commission.

I am sure that the people of Travis County are very comfortable with life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Any candidate who seeks to become district attorney in Travis County should pledge not to seek the death penalty. Life without parole is a valid alternative. In a contested Democratic primary in Travis County, a candidate who acknowledges that the death penalty system in Texas is riddled with problems and puts innocent people at risk of execution is likely to be rewarded with votes.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sharon Keller admits she violated unwritten rules of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

New reporting from the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe ("Judge in death case violated policies") includes an admission from the unethical presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller, that she violated the unwritten rules of the court on the day she said "We close at 5" and refused to accept an appeal from a man set for execution that day.

The rules have since been written down to prevent a similar injustice, but the unwritten rules in effect on Sept 25 were that Keller should have referred the request from Michael Richard's lawyers to keep the court open 20 minutes after 5 pm to the duty judge, but instead she decided on her own to close the court and refuse the appeal. The policy, which has since been written down, is that "all communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge."

Now that has admitted wrongdoing, there is no doubt that Sharon Keller should accept the demands on her to resign. More than 1,800 people have signed a judicial complaint against her with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Click here to watch an excellent video report of a protest against Keller on Nov 16 from FOX 7 News. We kept the court open late that day accepting letters from people urging Keller to resign.

Excerpt from Houston Chronicle:

In response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle, Keller said in a letter that no written court procedures existed Sept. 25, the day of Richard's execution. However, she said the new written rules reflected the court's unwritten policies on that day.

Keller was not the judge assigned to handle Richard's appeal when she decided to close the clerk's office so that Richard's lawyers could not file a late appeal.

Judge Cheryl Johnson was in charge of Richard's case on the day of his execution, but did not learn of his lawyers' attempts to file for a stay of execution until the day after his death.
and
In its public information request, the Chronicle asked for the state appeals court procedures for handling death penalty cases on the day of Richard's execution.

"No written policies regarding those matters existed on that date (Sept. 25)," Keller wrote. "Subsequent to that date, the court reduced to writing the unwritten policies that did exist on that date."

The written policy the court later adopted said the judge assigned to the case should stay on duty on the day of an execution until the execution occurs. The policy also said "all communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge."
SharonKiller.com

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Good Candidates Needed for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

We need to find some good candidates for the discredited Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2004, Texas Monthly called the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals the "Worst Court in Texas" in a bold headline on the cover of the magazine. In this month's magazine, Texas Monthly says that Sharon Keller, the CCA's Presiding Judge, should be impeached for her unethical behavior on Sept 25, when she said "We close at 5" and refused to accept an appeal from a man set for execution that night. Excerpt:

When a man’s life is on the line—to say nothing of the U.S. Constitution—our top criminal judge should behave like one: with prudence, fairness, and a calm hand. It’s time for Keller to go. If the commission doesn’t act quickly, we’ll have to wait until January 2009, when the Legislature—which has the power to oust high judges—reconvenes, or worse, 2012, when Keller is up for reelection. The fact is, we need to do it now. Impeach Sharon Keller.


Keller is not on the ballot in 2008, but that does not mean the Court should get a pass.

Grits for Breakfast has written extensively on the need for candidates to step up now and run for the CCA:
Of the incumbents who're up next go-round, at least Tom Price has the good sense to call a spade a spade, vocally declaring some time ago that the court's radical pro-prosecution precedents made them a "laughingtsock" around the nation's legal community. And Cathy Cochran finally came out to publicly criticize the Presiding Judge over the recent "We close at 5" debacle. The other judge up next year, Paul Womack, probably should be targeted before those two, but really IMO it's time to begin a comprehensive infusion of fresh blood.
There are three seats up and Democrats should find strong candidates for all of them. Both Scott Henson at Grits and I have separately asked some people to run, but so far no one has said yes. Now, there are only three weeks left before the filing deadline. We need to find someone before it is too late.

A Democrat can win election to the CCA in 2008 for two main reasons 1) the national political environment is favorable to the Democrats and a winning Democratic presidential candidate could have an impact on lower ballot races and 2) the "laughingstock" reputation of the CCA is likely to cause many editorial boards and other organizations to endorse a well-qualified challenger to the Republican incumbents on the ballot.

The key here is "well-qualified". In 2006, some media outlets, including the Dallas Morning News, wanted to endorse someone other than the Republican incumbents, but they did not think the challengers were up to the task in 2006. Excerpt from the DMN editorial:
When it comes to uninspiring court contests, the statewide Court of Criminal Appeals pretty much takes the cake.

Three Republican incumbents, none of whom deserves to be a shoo-in for re-election. One Democrat and two Libertarians, none of whom could be bothered to show up for an interview – or, in the case of the Democrat, complete a questionnaire.
Keller is not on the ballot, but she can be an issue in the election. She only won in 1994 anyhow because of down-ballot pull on the heels of the sweeping national Republican victory that year. It is time for the tables to turn.

I am writing this post to ask the blogging community to help find good candidates for the CCA. Help us find a practicing lawyer, a law professor, or a judge whom we can interest in running for the CCA.

Please use the comments to suggest people the Texas Democratic Party should contact about running for the court. Or email names to me at scottcobb99 (at) gmail.com and I will pass them along to the state party.

Candidates for the court are required to submit 50 signatures from each of Texas' 14 appellate districts, so even after a candidate is found, the blogging community should be ready to help the candidates get those signatures. I am ready to help.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Star Telegram Questions Basic Fairness of Texas Death Penalty

In a long editorial today, the Fort Worth Star Telegram argues that Texas should use the opportunity of the current de facto moratorium on executions to conduct a comprehensive examination of the death penalty in Texas. The question is where is the political leadership by Perry, Craddick, Dewhurst, Whitmire and Pena. They should set up an interim committee to study the system and make recommendations for the reforms to the next session of the Legislature in 2009.

From the Star Telegram:

Despite undeniable popular support for capital punishment, enough doubts surround its basic fairness that Texas should conduct a full re-evaluation of who is subjected to it, what circumstances warrant it and how it's delivered. And the current hiatus offers the opportunity.

Texas had no problem taking the lead on execution by lethal injection 25 years ago. If Texas wants to continue using a punishment from which there's no return, this state should lead the way in repairing the glaring flaws in its administration.

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