November 15, 2004
What to do about the CCA

Scott points to this Texas Monthly article about the state's Court of Criminal Appeals and its head hack, Sharon Keller. They lead off with a discussion of the infamous Roy Criner case, which thrust Judge Keller into the national spotlight.

IT WAS, BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the high court’s low point. A teenage girl named Deanna Ogg had been raped, bludgeoned, and stabbed to death on a late September afternoon in 1986 near the tiny town of New Caney, north of Houston. Roy Criner, a 21-year-old logger, was arrested after three friends said that, within hours of the time of Ogg’s death, Criner had bragged about picking up a hitchhiker, threatening her with a screwdriver, and forcing her to have sex. No other evidence tied him to the crime, but Criner was convicted and given 99 years for aggravated sexual assault. In 1997 newly available DNA tests showed that the sperm found in Ogg was not Criner’s. To be certain, the Montgomery County district attorney did a second test in the state’s lab and got the same results. Criner’s attorneys moved for a new trial, and in January 1998 the trial court agreed he deserved it.

Four months later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state, went against law, science, and, it seemed, all common sense when it wrote, “The new evidence does not establish innocence,” and overruled the trial court. Sharon Keller, who had been on the CCA only a little more than three years but was rapidly becoming the court’s philosophical leader, cited the incriminating statements to the three friends as “overwhelming, direct evidence” of Criner’s guilt. New evidence ofinnocence, she argued, had to be so clear and convincing that no reasonable jury would have convicted Criner had it known about it. DNA, she said, was not enough. Keller noted that perhaps Criner had worn a condom or failed to ejaculate. There was also testimony, she wrote, that the victim had said that she “loved sex,” so perhaps she had had sex with someone and then met her demise at the hands of the logger. These theories had not been alleged at trial, nor was there evidence that Ogg had had sex with anyone else within 48 hours of her death, and court watchers wondered why an appellate judge was posing alternate theories that the prosecutor could have offered years before at trial. It seemed that Keller and the court really wanted to keep Criner in prison.

In 2000 the PBS show Frontline aired an episode called “The Case for Innocence,” featuring Criner’s story. Keller was interviewed, and she defended the CCA’s opinion and characterized the victim as “a promiscuous girl.” When asked about the possibility that Criner was innocent, Keller said, “I suppose that that is a possibility. But he certainly hasn’t established it.” When asked how a person could establish it, Keller replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” She appeared to be lost in her own circular reasoning. All Criner was asking for was a new trial, but that, said Keller, was out of the question. It was the last in-depth interview she would give to the media.

Later that year more DNA tests were done, this time on saliva from a cigarette butt found at the crime scene. The DNA matched that of the sperm, and a month later the DA and the county sheriff joined the trial judge in calling for a pardon for Criner. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which almost always denies such requests, voted 18–0 to grant one, and in August Governor George W. Bush, in the heat of a presidential campaign, relented. Roy Criner was freed.


AN OLD FRIEND OF SHARON KELLER’S remembers hearing about Keller’s comments on Frontline and being dumbfounded: “I didn’t know where that absolute moral conviction came from. She didn’t question herself at all.” The friend reminisced about their youth in the early seventies and said, “She didn’t do anything wilder than anyone else. But I don’t know how she sleeps at night.”

Keep all that in mind the next time you hear someone talk about "moral values".

Scott suggests that the three CCA judges who are up for reelection in 2006, including Keller, are "the weakest statewide Republican targets available to Democats". I don't know if that's necessarily true, and unfortunately the CCA races are about as low profile as any statewide election can be, but there's no question in my mind that the Democrats owe it to us to find some strong candidates for them. Read the article, and you'll see there's no shortage of material with which to attack the integrity and, well, the values of the incumbent judges. I can't say that any of these offices will be easier targets than, say, the Governor's mansion, but they sure as heck are worthy ones.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 15, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack