‘Close at 5’ judge in hot water again

Keller locked the doors and miss a death row appeal

‘Close at 5’ judge in hot water againSharon Keller, the Texas judge who wouldn’t keep her court open for even a minute past 5 p.m. so a last-minute appeal could be filed by a man on death row, is a step closer to losing her job.

On Monday, a Texas legislative committee heard testimony on a bill that, if passed, would impeach Keller, chief justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals, for “conducting her official duties with willful disregard for human life.” The bill is a response to her September 2007 decision to lock the doors of her court promptly at 5 p.m., thereby refusing the lawyers of death row inmate Michael Richard time to file a last-minute appeal. His lawyers had called at 4:45 p.m. to explain they were running late after having computer problems. Richard was executed that night.

Keller’s decision, which wasn’t relayed to fellow judges who were waiting to rule on the expected appeal, shocked even Texas, a death penalty stronghold. In February the state commission on judicial conduct laid five misconduct charges against her, including incompetence. Last week 24 legal ethicists filed a brief with the state commission that called for her removal from office. Keller has denied the charges, and the case will go to trial on Aug. 17.

The judicial and legislative cases aren’t her only problems. After Keller asked the state to pay her “financially ruinous” legal bills, the Dallas Morning News revealed that she hadn’t disclosed US$1.9 million in real estate assets as legally required. A watchdog group has since filed a criminal complaint about the omission with a district attorney.

There are also reports of an eerily similar locked-door incident involving Keller in January. In this case, lawyers for murderer Larry Swearingen arrived at the court clerk’s office at 5:01 p.m. on a Friday to be told their appeal wouldn’t be registered until the following Monday, so they would miss a crucial filing deadline. According to the Morning News, Keller was informed of the rejection. Only after Cheryl Johnson—one of the judges who had waited for the Richard appeal that never came in September 2007—personally intervened did the court accept the filing.