Sharon Keller is Texas' Judge Dread

When Sharon Keller turned off the clock on a Death Row inmate's last-gasp appeal, she became the most vilified judge in Texas

Marguerite Dixon was a native of West Virginia who missed the changing of the seasons when she moved to Hockley, 40 miles north of Houston. Although she could be a stern disciplinarian, her children never doubted she loved them. They thought of her as a wonderful mother.

On the afternoon of August 18, 1986, Michael Richard, on parole after a burglary conviction, asked Marguerite's son Albert whether the yellow van parked outside their house was for sale. Albert told him the vehicle belonged to his brother and asked Richard to come back another time.

Later that evening, Albert and his sister Paula returned home and quickly knew something was wrong. The sliding glass door was open. All the lights were out. It was too early for their mom to have gone to sleep.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins says his predecessors were sometimes unfair to defendants.
Brian Harkin
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins says his predecessors were sometimes unfair to defendants.
Lawyer Brian Wice says Keller is a friend, but even he can't defend her decision.
Lawyer Brian Wice says Keller is a friend, but even he can't defend her decision.

Frightened, the Dixons asked a neighbor to walk in the house with a flashlight and gun. That's when they discovered their mother dead in her bedroom, shot in the head with a .25-caliber automatic pistol.

It didn't take long for police to find their man. The next morning, the detective assigned to the case found a missing yellow van and traced it back to Richard. After obtaining a warrant for his arrest, police found him at his mother's home. Richard confessed to the crime and led police to the murder weapon. In September 1987, a Harris County jury found Richard guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death.

Richard's execution date would come 20 years later on September 25, 2007. That morning, two of his lawyers, having exhausted all other legal remedies, were hoping to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that their client was mentally retarded and that executing him would be unconstitutional. Their prospects were bleak, but after years of appeals, Richard's attorneys had run out of options.

But early that morning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Baze v. Rees, a Kentucky case alleging that the use of particular chemicals in a lethal injection should be banned as cruel and unusual punishment because of the pain and suffering they might induce in condemned inmates. The Supreme Court didn't rule one way or another; it merely indicated that the full court needed to review the constitutionality of lethal injection in the near future.

David Dow, Richard's lead attorney and a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, did not expect the Supreme Court to accept the Kentucky case on the day of his client's execution. He didn't think the increasingly conservative court would review the case at all. So it caught him off guard when he read about it in an e-mail at his office at 10:30 a.m.

Already Dow had lost valuable time. Just because the Supreme Court granted a hearing didn't mean that Richard's execution automatically would be stayed. The law professor had to figure out how a Kentucky case could be raised in a Texas court. He spent an hour or so discussing some of the intricate legal issues with Richard's other attorneys. They figured the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas, wouldn't grant a stay. The court has long been the most conservative in the state. But if Richard's lawyers were going to ask the Supreme Court for relief, they had to show that they had exhausted all their options at the state level. So the rush was on to write their motion.

As Richard's attorneys were scrambling on behalf of their client, Marguerite Dixon's children learned that their mother's killer may have one last chance. Paula Dixon, who was 20 at the time of the murder, had been counting down the days to the execution. It wasn't that she wanted Richard to be put to death, but as his execution date approached, she started to keep track of what she thought were his last days.

"Enough already," Dixon remembers thinking when she heard that Richard's execution date might not be final. "Either do it or don't, but quit stringing us along."

At 4 p.m., Richard's lawyers finished writing their pleadings, according to a detailed account of that day's events in Texas Lawyer magazine. Dow tried to e-mail the document to another lawyer so she could add a few attachments. That's when he realized he had lost Internet access.

A paralegal working on the Richard case called a clerk at the Court of Criminal Appeals and asked for more time. The lawyers didn't think this would be much of an issue. "There were any number of times when the court was open late or a judge has received pleadings late," says Maurie Levin, one of Richard's attorneys.

But this time the clerk told Richard's paralegal the court closed at 5 p.m. At 5:10, with his computer problems resolved, Dow finished his pleading. He says he figured the court would take it. The paralegal called the clerk a second time and was told that the court wouldn't accept their filing. As it turns out, Keller instructed the clerk that the court was closed, according to her own account in the Austin American-Statesman. (Keller did not return repeated calls from the Dallas Observer to her office and home.)

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