An Interview With Judge Sharon Keller

The soft-spoken and — until now — media-shy presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals sat down with The Texas Tribune last week to talk about capital punishment in Texas, what she was doing on the afternoon she closed her office at 5 p.m. to a last-minute death row appeal, the flaws in the way the state sanctions judges, what it's like to be known as Sharon “Killer” Keller and the "ridiculous" idea that she doesn't care about defendants or indigent defense.

On Sept. 25, 2007, Sharon Keller allegedly spoke the words that launched a thousand editorials: "The court closes at 5 p.m." According to lawyers for Michael Richard, that's what the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals said when she denied their request to file a last-minute appeal of his death sentence on the night he was to be executed.

Ever since, a glaring national spotlight has focused on the state's death row appeals process and, to a lesser extent, on its method of regulating judicial conduct. But despite the public furor, Keller has escaped any official punishment for her actions that day. Judge David Berchelmann, reviewing the evidence on orders from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said that while her behavior was “not exemplary of a public servant,” he recommended no reprimand. And though the commission went against his wishes and issued its own sanction, Keller successfully appealed: Two weeks ago, a special court of review found the commission acted outside of its authority.

The soft-spoken and, until now, media-shy judge sat down with the Tribune in her office on Friday to talk about the death penalty in Texas, the flaws in the way the state sanctions judges, what really happened that afternoon and what it's like to be known as Sharon “Killer” Keller. She was quick to say she planned to run for re-election in 2012 — despite the impeachment proceedings that state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, says he'll file against her in the upcoming session and the fodder all of the negative attention over the Richard case provides for an opponent. The more the public learned about her actual judicial record and what really happened that day, she said, the less it would matter.

“The idea that I don’t care about defendants, or indigent defense, is ridiculous,” she insisted.

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