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Monday, August 17, 2009

Statesman Editorial: Keller drags Texas through the mud

Editorial: TEXAS JUSTICE SYSTEM

Keller drags Texas through the mud

Austin American Statesman

Editorial Board

Monday, August 17, 2009

No matter the outcome of the hearing scheduled to begin today that could end in sanctions against embattled Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Chief Justice Sharon Keller, her already battered reputation will be pounded some more. While the judge's many detractors will find some satisfaction in that, the Texas way of administering criminal justice also will take a beating.

A politician's reputation is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but if a society claims to be one based on law, then its justice system is only as good as the confidence in it.

Beyond the question of whether Keller's handling of a last-minute death row appeal was legally appropriate is the much larger question of whether criminal appeals in Texas are handled objectively and whether the state's court of last resort in criminal cases is in reality nothing more than a state agency dedicated to upholding convictions.

Texas has always relished its "tough on crime" reputation. Politicians who campaign against crime always find a friendly crowd, and Keller jumped on that and rode pro-prosecution rhetoric to a seat on what should be an objective forum for hearing appeals. But promising fairness is boring and doesn't get you on television.

Keller — and by extension, the state's justice system — has been the subject of hours of air time, gallons of ink and enough bytes of electronic information to operate a fleet of spaceships as a result of the case that has led to today's proceedings before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

A brief background: Lawyers for convicted killer Michael Richard tried to file a last-minute, after-hours appeal in 2007. According to Richard's lawyers, they were having computer problems and asked if they could file motions after 5 p.m. They said they were told "no."

Keller's lawyer disputes that now-famous reply. Furthermore, he claims that defense lawyers are to blame for Richard not getting a hearing.

Only two months after his release from a second prison term in 1986, Richard raped, shot and killed Marguerite Lucille Dixon, 53, a nurse and mother of seven, inside her Harris County home. Richard won a second trial after pleading that he was abused as a child and possessed an IQ well below average. Tried again, he was convicted again in 1995 and sentenced to death.

The last-minute appeal was based on the U.S. Supreme Court's announcement earlier that same day that it would hear a case arguing that death by injection violates the Constitution because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Keller's critics say closing the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the appeal was callous. The state's Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a list of more legal complaints against Keller in connection with the Richard case.

The he-said, she-said nature of the depositions doesn't hold much promise for shedding light on the situation but offers a rare glimpse into the court's inner workings. However repugnant some may find it, the hearing ought to be considered mandatory viewing.

Some commentators predict that the worst that will happen is that Keller will end up with a slap on the wrist once it's all said and done.

If so, that slap on the wrist will result in yet another black eye on a Texas justice system that is supposed to be blind.

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