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Judge's Merciless Decision May Bring Positive Change

Who knows what Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was thinking when she wouldn't keep the court house doors open for twenty more minutes to accept a filing by a death row inmate's (Michael Richard) attorneys, seeking a stay of execution based on an decision earlier that day by the Supreme Court to review a challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection.  Perhaps, as she suggested in one explanation, Richard's attorneys should have simply gotten their appeal filed by five.  However, given the time constraints, it's difficult to say that these attorneys were dilatory.  Moreover, according to this account by Joan Cheever, what made the difference between life and death here (because Richard was executed that evening) was a computer breakdown, which prevented the lawyers from reproducing the required eleven copies needed for filing in a timely manner.   This post by defense attorney Mark Bennett also explains how Keller might have made allowances to accept the appeal.

The controversy over Keller's actions continues to grow.  Texas lawyer Robert Kraft notes the creation of the Judge Sharon Killer website.  And not surprisingly, a judicial conduct complaint has been filed to condemn Keller for her actions.  At Grits for Breakfast, blogger Scott Henson and his readers generally agree that Keller deserves sanctions, even though some readers (roughly 20 percent) believe that technically, she was right to enforce the rules, but morally, she should have made allowances.  And now, news stories from the
New York Times, Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle are reporting that Keller's actions have galvanized 300 lawyers, prominent defense attorneys and judges among them, to seek changes in the Texas court's filing practices on death penalty cases.  Specifically, they have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to allow death penalty petitions and briefs to be filed electronically - a practice allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. federal district courts in Texas.  Electronic filings would have prevented the problems experienced by Richard's lawyers and allowed for timely filing before the deadlines.

In this day and age where even my sixth grader can submit assignments to her teacher by e-mail, there's simply no excuse for courts not allowing the practice.  It's too late for anyone to reverse Judge Keller's irreversible decision.  Nor is there any way to force a "stick to the rules" judge to act with compassion  when a life is at stake.  But at least an electronic filing system with clear cut rules can facilitate last hour filings, and so that in the last hours of life, the fate of a death row defendant doesn't rest solely on the mercy of a merciless judge. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on October 25, 2007 at 03:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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