October 22, 2007
"A shame, and a surprise"

One more bit of shock and outrage about Sharon Keller, from someone who once worked for the Court of Criminal Appeals:

All the Texas judges had to have been available by phone for this vote. At least that's what they are supposed to do at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, most especially in the hours before an execution. At least that's what they did in 1983, when I worked there as a briefing attorney. In the weeks and days and, most especially, on the day and in the hours leading up to a midnight execution, everyone knew about it -- the lawyers, the court clerk, the clerical staff, even the nightly cleaning crew.

The air was thick with tension on "those days," especially in "the bullpen," the nickname of the large room where four of us worked, side by side, because the court had run out of space for our offices. It was the unofficial headquarters, the office water cooler -- for all the new briefing attorneys to exchange gossip, pitch legal strategy or chat about some nuance of case law.

No one went out for lunch on the day of or a few days before an execution; some high-strung briefing attorneys could barely keep breakfast down.

It's hard for me to understand exactly what happened on Sept. 25. By the time I had left the court in 1984, only three men had been executed in Texas. The number is now 405. Has the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals become so desensitized to executions that it can't stop the killing machine for an extra 20 minutes?

Even on a day when there is an 11th-hour and very unexpected announcement from the U.S. Supreme Court that it will review a crucial death penalty issue, everyone knows it takes hours for the defendant's appellate lawyers to review stacks of appellate briefs to see if the "out of left field" the cruel and unusual punishment/lethal injection claim was raised earlier. Then there is a quick strategy session and a race to the computer to crank out a 108-page application to stop the execution based on the U.S. Supreme Court's order. I can't imagine the pandemonium in that law office when, out of the blue, their computer crashed, making a 5 p.m. deadline of 11 hard copies absolutely impossible. All of this was taking place one hour before the execution.


On Sept. 25, the eyes of the United States and the world, were on Texas, and still are. On Sept. 30, members of the European Parliament called for an immediate moratorium on executions, and overwhelmingly voted in favor, 504-45, to mark Oct. 10 as the official European Day against the Death Penalty.

But I still would like to know: Did Keller close the office at 5 p.m. because she's dumb or just mean?

Strictly speaking, of course, she could be both. But I don't think she's dumb, and I'm not sure mean is the right word, either. I think she's indifferent. It's not a matter of life and death to her, or even a matter of justice. I think she cares about the minutiae of process over everything else, and that she completely lacks a sense of perspective. Maybe someday she'll have the guts to speak to the press about why she does what she does and we won't have to rely on dime-store speculation like mine. Until then, that's my opinion. Grits has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 22, 2007 to Crime and Punishment