Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller apparently violated court policies for handling death penalty cases when she closed the court clerk's doors on Michael Richard's efforts to file a last-minute appeal before his execution.
In response to a national outcry against Keller's actions, the court adopted written policies last month to make certain a death row inmate's appeals always go first to an assigned judge.
In response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle, Keller said in a letter that no written court procedures existed Sept. 25, the day of Richard's execution. However, she said the new written rules reflected the court's unwritten policies on that day.
Keller was not the judge assigned to handle Richard's appeal when she decided to close the clerk's office so that Richard's lawyers could not file a late appeal.
Judge Cheryl Johnson was in charge of Richard's case on the day of his execution, but did not learn of his lawyers' attempts to file for a stay of execution until the day after his death.
A lawyer who has been representing other attorneys in filing complaints against Keller for her handling of the Richard case said Keller's response to the Chronicle's information request clearly shows Keller violated the court's unwritten policies in cutting off Richard's appeal.
"To me, it's a pretty stunning admission that she operated totally outside of their procedures," said Jim Harrington, who has coordinated attorney complaints filed against Keller with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. "She doesn't have respect for the processes of the court, which are designed to protect due process."
In its public information request, the Chronicle asked for the state appeals court procedures for handling death penalty cases on the day of Richard's execution.
"No written policies regarding those matters existed on that date (Sept. 25)," Keller wrote. "Subsequent to that date, the court reduced to writing the unwritten policies that did exist on that date."
The written policy the court later adopted said the judge assigned to the case should stay on duty on the day of an execution until the execution occurs. The policy also said "all communications regarding the scheduled execution shall first be referred to the assigned judge."