Burnam Calls for Impeachment of Killer Keller

State Rep. Lon Burnam wants the Texas House to impeach Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon "Killer" Keller

CCA Judge Sharon
CCA Judge Sharon "Killer" Keller

While the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct still has not yet weighed in on whether Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon "Killer" Keller should be disciplined for refusing to accept the appeal of a condemned inmate after 5pm, Fort Worth Democratic State Rep. Lon Burnam isn't waiting around for them to do so. Instead, on Feb. 16, Burnam filed a resolution (HR 480) calling for the impeachment of Keller for what he calls "gross neglect of duty and conducting her official duties with willful disregard for human life."

On Sept. 25, 2007, Keller refused to accept the last-minute appeal of Texas death row inmate Michael Richard, whose lawyers were seeking a stay of his looming execution based on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that morning to hear an appeal filed by two Kentucky death row inmates challenging the constitutionality of the lethal injection method of execution. Richard was scheduled to be executed that same night, which put his lawyers on an accelerated timeline to draft and file the appeal. As the 6pm execution time got nearer the lawyers hit a snag -- they had computer problems that delayed them in getting the appeal to the court. Richard's lawyer, David Dow, of the Texas Innocence Network at the Univ. of Houston Law Center, said at the time that he called the court clerk to say the appeal would be slightly delayed -- he needed approximately 20 more minutes -- but that, apparently, wasn't good enough for Keller, who refused to accept the document, claiming that the court had a 5pm closing time. Richard was executed that night. On Oct. 4, 2007, Keller told the San Antonio Express-News that she had "no second thoughts" about her arbitrary decision to close the court -- and that Richard's attorneys should've been more prompt: "You're asking me whether something different would have happened if we had stayed open...and I think the question ought to be why didn't they file something on time," she said. Indeed.

Of course, "something different" likely would have been the result if Keller hadn't been so eager to leave the office for the day: Richard had a good shot at a stay of execution from the U.S. Supremes, who would have grasped the significance of continuing to execute inmates while the method of execution was in question. In fact, not 24 hours after Richard was executed, the high court granted a stay for Texas inmate Carlton Turner Jr., after the CCA denied his appeal. (Because the CCA refused Richard's appeal, but did not deny it, procedurally, the Supremes were not in a position to do much except allow his execution to go forward. Ultimately, the Supremes' decision to accept the Kentucky case prompted a seven-month nationwide moratorium while the case was pending.)

In the wake of Keller's startlingly callous action, a group of nearly two dozen prominent attorneys signed on to a complaint filed with the judicial conduct commission by Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington, calling for a reprimand for Keller -- or her ouster. It's been nearly a year-and-a-half since the complaint was filed and still no word from the Commission. That has prompted Burnam to act, asking the House to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Keller. "It's one thing for a banker to close shop at five o'clock sharp," Burnam said in a statement. "But a public official who stands between a human being and the death chamber must be held to a higher standard." Burnam told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he decided to file the resolution calling for impeachment proceedings because the Commission has failed to act: "I am outraged," he said. "We have been ignored. So we're trying another venue."

Whether the House will act on Burnam's resolution remains to be seen, but TCRP's Harrington said he is pleased that Burnam is keeping the issue alive. "I think that [is] a great way to keep the issue up front and alive and to hold judges accountable," he said. Harrington said he has yet to hear anything from the Commission regarding the complaint he authored back in October 2007. "They don't tell us anything," he said. "I'm not holding my breath."

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Courts, 81st Legislature, Legislature, CCA, Sharon Keller, Jim Harrington, Lon Burnam, death penalty

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