When Michael Richard’s lawyers called the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals at around 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 25, they were desperate. Their client was to be put to death that evening for a 1986 murder, but earlier that day the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a case challenging lethal injections, the same method to be used in Richard’s executionproviding new grounds for a stay of execution.
After reworking their request and suffering a massive computer failure, the lawyers knew they wouldn’t get to the courthouse before the building’s normal 5 p.m. closing to file the needed paperwork, a procedural step necessary for the appeal. They asked for an extra 20 minutes. Sharon Keller, the appeal court’s presiding judge, said no, and ordered the doors locked at the usual hour. Richard was executed at 8:23 p.m., after eating a last meal of fried chicken, apple pie and ice cream.
Last week, 20 Texas lawyers, including a former state bar association president, filed an official complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, arguing that Keller’s decision denied Richard of his constitutional right of due process and access to the courts. Jim Harrington, the head of the Texas Civil Rights Project, called Keller’s actions “morally callous, shocking and unconscionable.” It turns out that Judge Cheryl Johnson, the appeals court justice charged with Richard’s case, as well as several other judges prepared to work late that night, weren’t informed of their presiding judge’s decision to cut off Richard’s last chance at a judicial appeal. “I was angry,” said Johnson, ”On a death case we were here up until the time of the execution, and we would take filings that came in up until the execution is underway.” For Johnson, the issue wasn’t a question about Richard’s guilt, but his right to appeal. Keller is satisfied with her decision: “I think the question ought to be why didn’t they file something on time? They had all day.” Since Richard’s death, all U.S. executions have been halted awaiting a Supreme Court decision— which may come next year. M
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