Most embrace some reforms in Court of Criminal Appeals races

Almost all of the candidates for the state's highest criminal court agree the justice system should change how it handles drug cases and mental illness.

Mary Lou Keel a felony trial court judge in Harris County, is running for Place 2 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals against incumbent Larry Meyers.

Regardless of party, most of the candidates for the state's highest criminal court say they want to see more cases involving drug addiction and mental illness moved out of the criminal justice system. But they agree less on reforming the state's death penalty.

Three seats on the nine-member Court of Criminal Appeals are up for election Nov. 8, all filled at large. The panel serves as the court of last resort in the state for appeals of criminal convictions and reviews all death sentences.

Like most statewide offices, the court has been dominated by Republicans, with the exception of one member who changed party affiliation in 2013.

The races this year:

  • In place 2, Harris County state District Judge Mary Lou Keel, a Republican, is challenging incumbent Democrat Judge Larry Meyers. Keel has been a felony trial judge for about 22 years and was a trial and appellate prosecutor before that. Meyers has been a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals for about 24 years, and was an associate justice on the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth before his 1992 election. Libertarian Mark Ash and the Green Party's Adam King Blackwell Reposa are also in the race.
  • In place 5, Republican Fort Worth attorney Scott Walker and San Antonio attorney and Democrat Betsy Johnson are vying for an open seat. Walker, an attorney specializing in veteran disability cases and criminal defense, has practiced law for almost 20 years. Johnson is a criminal defense attorney. Libertarian William Bryan Strange III and the Green Party's Judith Sanders Castro are also in contention.
  • In place 6, Dallas County District Judge Robert Burns, a Democrat, is challenging incumbent Republican Judge Michael Keasler. Burns was first elected to the felony criminal court in 2006 and oversees an adult drug offender re-entry program. Before that, he was a defense attorney for 10 years and a prosecutor for seven. Keasler has been a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals since 1999. Before that, he was a state district court judge for 17 years and a prosecutor for 12. Libertarian Mark W. Bennett is also in the race.

Keasler and Meyers – a conservative and progressive, respectively, and two of the longest-serving judges on the court – said people dealing with drug addiction and mental illness don't belong in the criminal justice system. Walker said he's faced the issue with his clients.

"I see people all the time – I've had several cases recently where my clients are competent to stand trial, but they're not really capable of keeping up with probation. They honestly can't," Walker said. "And they need a very intensive type of probation with a whole lot of help. The system can't just put those kind of people out on the street and expect them to show up when they're supposed to show up and do all the programs they're supposed to do without some very intensive help."

Burns, who has presided over a diversion program for more than four years, said helping these offenders instead of punishing them works out in the long run.

"When it comes to drug offenses, I'm a big believer in diversionary programs," Burns said. "I really think that treatment works much better than incarceration because if you don't treat people who have drug problems, they're going to fail on probation and then they're going to end up in prison. It really starts a cycle of failure and criminality."

Keel said she's happy other judges want to divert people, but that isn't part of her approach in the courtroom.

"There is definitely a push for that. We'll see how beneficial is that really and who really should be getting these special services and special treatment like that," she said. "I'm not personally involved in any of the treatment courts. I'm not personally suited to that sort of thing. I consider myself really to be a judge. And by that I mean I am not a social worker, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a probation officer. I am a trained legal professional who presides over disputed matters in a court of law, and that's where I focus my efforts, and that's where I prefer to focus my efforts."

There's less unity among the candidates on capital punishment, as executions in Texas and nationwide continue to decline amid scrutiny of overturned convictions and ebbing public support for the death penalty.

Keasler says his support for capital punishment is rooted in his sense of responsibility.

Some murderers continue to be a threat as long as they are alive, Keasler said. He said if he recognized that in an offender and didn't do something about it and they were to kill another person, he'd feel responsible.

"You cannot be sure that that person won't kill another inmate or kill somebody that is employed in the prison," Keasler said. "Any time they have access to a human being, I think they're a threat, and there are some people like that."

Meyers said Texas should reform how it approaches sentencing in capital murder cases.

"The death penalty situation in Texas is screwed up right now," Meyers said. "If you commit a capital murder, you will never get out of prison. Never. Because you'll either get executed there, or you'll die there. So that's just two forms of the death penalty."

Texas should make life in prison without parole the highest punishment in capital murder cases, he said.

It would save money, satisfy the punishment factor and "the best part about it is if you screw up and you later on find out that this guy or woman is innocent, either by DNA or recantations or new evidence or whatever, you haven't executed them, and you can do like the Michael Morton case," Meyers said. "You could set it aside and convict the right person. It just makes sense from every aspect."

Keel has hit Meyers on his position, saying judges should not advocate for policy changes, instead looking at issues on a case-by-case basis. She refused to reveal her position on the death penalty but said she is comfortable presiding over capital murder cases.

"It's interesting to me that Judge Meyers doesn't feel constrained along those lines. He's been campaigning on a platform to lower the range of punishment for capital murder cases because he says life without parole is too harsh and has inadequate procedural safeguards, so he's coming really close to saying that our punishment scheme for capital murder is unconstitutional," Keel said.

Burns and Walker said capital punishment is the law and they intend to follow it.

"As long as it's the law, I am a firm believer that the appellate court system needs to take every step that needs to be taken before somebody's executed," Walker said. "In other words, we don't need to speed up the process of executions. Because of all these exonerations, we need to make sure that only people get executed that need to be."

For what many call low-profile races, half of the candidates have generated unique attention.

Meyers switched parties out of frustration with the Tea Party's hold on the Republican Party. He may be an incumbent, but now he's a Democrat – something he acknowledged might spell defeat in November. Having Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump on the top of the ticket might help him, he said.

Walker generated headlines simply because of his name. Some outlets suggested his shared name with the Wisconsin governor and former presidential candidate helped him win the GOP primary, defeating three other Republicans at the polls. He said others even suggested he changed his name before running for the court.

He vehemently denied the charge.

"That is just totally ridiculous," Walker said. "I have always been called Scott Walker. My name's Richard Scott Walker. My parents started calling me Scott when I was born."

Johnson has been a hard candidate to track down for several media outlets, warranting coverage unto itself. She also did not respond to requests for an interview for this report.

The big bucks aren't spent in these races: In the place 2 race, Keel's campaign had $9,140.74 on hand to Meyers' $441.15, according to their October campaign finance reports. In place 5, Walker had $5,760.34 on hand to Johnson's $0. In place 6, Keasler had $7,450.50 to Burns' $1,541.12.

Read more about the Texas criminal justice system: