Last-chance judge cultivates tough reputation
Vail, CO Colorado
AUSTIN, Texas ” The path to the nation’s busiest death chamber winds through a court of last resort where the presiding judge recently refused to keep her office open past 5 p.m. to accept a last-minute appeal from an inmate about to be executed.
Judge Sharon Keller’s relentless tough-on-crime approach earned her the nickname “Killer Keller,” and condemned prisoners in Texas know she is unlikely to spare them from a lethal injection.
Keller, 54, cultivates her reputation, distributing campaign literature showing a shadowy figure behind bars and the headline: “He won’t be voting for Judge Sharon Keller.”
Keller is “clearly not the friend of the criminal defendant, and she is active and aggressive in espousing her view of the law, which is very often ” almost always ” very pleasing to the prosecutors and not to the defense lawyers,” said John Wright, a Huntsville defense attorney who has represented death-row clients before the state Court of Criminal Appeals.
On the night Keller refused to keep the court open, Michael Richard’s lawyers had asked to file a last-minute appeal. They appealed through the federal system instead, and the Supreme Court turned down his case. Richard was put to death at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 25 for the rape and murder of a Houston-area woman.
Just hours earlier, the high court had agreed to review the constitutionality of lethal injection. Richard, 49, is the only person in the nation to have been executed since that day.
After Richard’s execution, conservatives praised the judge for treating Richard like the killer he was. Civil rights activists vilified her as a cold-blooded jurist who denied a condemned man a final appeal.
Keller, who declined requests from The Associated Press for an interview, was elected as a Republican to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, becoming the first woman on the nine-member panel. Her decisions have made headlines before.
In 1998, she and four other judges on the court refused to grant a retrial to a man sentenced to 99 years for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. DNA tests determined that semen found on the victim did not belong to Roy Criner.
In her opinion, she speculated that the absence of Criner’s semen may signal “a failure to ejaculate … or it may establish a condom was used.” Keller also noted that the victim was promiscuous.
Fellow Republican Judge Tom Price, who ran against Keller to be the court’s presiding judge, said she made the court a “national laughingstock.”
“You could not deal with them on arguments that made any sense,” said Mike Charlton, who represented Criner and is now an assistant federal defender in Nevada.
“If you’re a criminal defense attorney in Texas, you expect to lose a majority of cases. But there are some cases that you’re supposed to win, and the Roy Criner case is one of those cases. He was so obviously innocent.”
Gov. George W. Bush pardoned Criner in 2000.
“Even a conservative governor like George Bush and his conservative staff recognized that this was an obvious miscarriage, a transparent miscarriage that nobody could explain,” Charlton said.
Keller grew up in Dallas and served as a prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorney’s office, working in the appellate section. Her parents own a Dallas hamburger chain.
Supporters describe her as a soft-spoken, charming woman whose decisions are well reasoned and principled.
In the Criner case “there were a lot of issues that went back and forth,” said Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “She came down on one side of it, but it was a principled answer … she’s very intellectually honest.”
Because judges in Texas are elected, experts say a law-and-order platform is the only way to win a seat on the bench.
“What are they going to say? I promise to be soft on crime and let criminals go? No, they’re going to say just the opposite and they do,” said Jim Marcus, a clinical professor in the capital punishment clinic at University of Texas School of Law.
The Court of Criminal Appeals has been made up entirely of Republicans since 1994, but some observers believe Keller’s anti-crime fervor has been infectious, helping to push the panel farther to the right.
“It’s hard not to recognize that this was someone who wanted to chart an agenda,” Charlton said. “And she had more than enough people willing to go along with her.”