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

Hagood, who knew Keller when she was "the star of the appellate section," eagerly defends his longtime friend. "She's an outstanding attorney in every respect: very bright, conscientious, ethical and focused."

But Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney who has worked to remedy the mistakes of his predecessors, says that even if Keller was a good lawyer, she learned some bad lessons along the way. The shadow of Wade hung over the District Attorney's Office for years, maintaining a warped legal culture, he says.

"The DAs after Henry Wade were prodigies of Henry Wade, and I don't want to disparage him, but let's be honest, there were some things that were done to defendants that were unfair," Watkins says. "This office is a training ground to prepare lawyers, and obviously you take on the mentality of this office. I think most lawyers, after they've left for private practice, understand the past failures of this office and are honest with it."

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.

Even if Michael Richard's lawyers were able to stay his execution, he likely would have been put to death eventually. The Supreme Court may rule soon that the drug cocktails used in a lethal injection, in fact, do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Then executions in Texas and across the country would resume. Even if the court has problems with the standard lethal-injection protocol, states could refine it to overcome those concerns.

So it's not likely that Richard could have avoided his date with death for another two decades. Criner, though, was an innocent man, and Keller helped keep him in prison for two additional years after DNA tests cleared him of the crime. Then she offered a clumsy, embarrassing rationale of her decision on national television.

Yet the pure simplicity of how Keller turned off the clock before a Death Row inmate could file an 11th-hour appeal has made her a pariah among lawyers. Whether her conduct here was worse than before, or whether it hit the tipping point, Keller really did it this time. She'll probably keep her seat, but her reputation is beyond repair.

More than 300 lawyers have signed on to official complaints about her actions to both the State Bar of Texas and the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. Many of them represent the very heart of a legal establishment not known for picking fights with high-ranking judges.

"I signed the petition because it was very unsettling to me as a lawyer that any criminal defendant's life, however unworthy it may be, could be dealt with in such a cavalier manner," says Broadus Spivey, a former state Bar president who specializes in legal malpractice. "To a person, everyone with whom I have discussed this situation agrees with me that it should have never happened. I have never seen such a unanimous response from the legal profession."

Dick DeGuerin, the celebrated defense attorney who has represented a spate of high-profile clients ranging from Tom DeLay to the late David Koresh, also signed the petition against Keller.

"She has done some outrageous things, but this was the last straw," he says. "It was so clearly a life-and-death situation."

But the problem is that this probably won't be the last straw. Even in a state that has locked up more than its share of guiltless defendants, judges rarely receive any kind of severe sanction. Most lawyers expect Keller to receive a mere slap on the wrist, if that.

Brian Wice, for one, says that no matter what sitting judges do, they almost never have to worry about being kicked off the bench.

"When you look at the conduct that will get you sanctioned from the judicial commission, it's like getting kicked out of a Guns N' Roses concert," he says, "I think she will survive."

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