The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said Tuesday it will accept emergency e-mail filings in death penalty cases in an effort to avoid a repeat of the nationally controversial execution of Michael Richard.
The court said its new "instant response system," which takes effect immediately, will send emergency pleadings in death penalty cases and other extraordinary matters by e-mail to an on-call duty judge and the rest of the court so it can begin considering the matter.
The e-filing will allow the court to act before an official filing is made with the court, according to a statement issued by the court. The new procedure was described as a "stop-gap" measure until a wide ranging electronic filing system is adopted by all Texas appeals courts in 2010.
Under the procedure, an attorney filing an emergency appeal will have to notify the clerk by telephone that a late filing is in the works. The e-mail filing then will go to the duty judge. An official paper filing will have to be given to the court clerk by 9:30 a.m. the following day.
"This system will supplement the court's current routine for these emergencies so that nothing will be left to chance or miscommunications," said the court's unsigned news release. "The court intends to have a fail-safe system."
Austin criminal defense lawyer Charles Herring, one of the leaders of the petition drive, welcomed the new rule as a "small step" toward improving the death penalty system. But he said it does not undo the "legal malfunction" that led to Richard's execution.
Herring said the court is far from creating a "fail-safe system." He said a recent State Bar of Texas study found the criminal appeals court is still designating for death penalty appeals too many lawyers who are inexperienced or who have had legal disciplinary problems.
"This court is a long, long way from achieving that goal," Herring said.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, also said the new rule is a small step toward fixing the state's capital punishment system.
"The fact the court could do this so quickly after the attorneys' petition begs the question of why it had not done so earlier and underscores the sad reality that Mr. Richard would still be alive," Harrington said.
"Judge Keller's actions were but one manifestation of a system that operates capriciously and discriminates against poor and minority persons," he said.