Take her off the bench and Sharon Keller is funny, smart and personable, if a little shy. People genuinely like her. One of the most powerful judges in Texas plays gin every week with a group of Austin friends and enjoys sharing drinks with lawyers who've just tried to persuade her of the finer points of their cases.
A former Dallas County prosecutor whose family started a string of popular hamburger joints, Keller is the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and right now the same lawyers who are quick to share an endearing anecdote about the judge will also tell you that she's not fit to serve on the bench. Keller has skated from one controversy to the next, but today she finds herself the most vilified judge in Texas, if not the entire country.
On September 25, Keller refused to keep her clerk's office open an extra 20 minutes to receive a last-gasp pleading from the attorneys for condemned inmate Michael Richard. Richard's lawyers were having computer problems that prevented them from turning in their motion on time. The 49-year-old murderer was executed just hours after Keller locked the door.
Richard's pleading was a complicated procedural move that followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier that morning that raised doubts about the constitutionality of lethal injection. That gave Richard's lawyers an opening to stay their client's execution until the Supreme Court revisited the issue.
But Keller's decision to close her court at 5 p.m.—a move that has since been blasted by even her Republican colleagues—violated the court's unwritten policies for handling executions. It also broke sharply from tradition. In Texas, it's not unusual for judges and clerks to take last-minute pleadings at their homes. On execution day, the courts don't have a strict closing time.
Keller's actions also defied the Supreme Court decision from that day, which has resulted in an unofficial nationwide moratorium on capital punishment. Maybe she didn't make an intentional end run around the highest court in the land, but that was the effect. To be more blunt, the effect was to kill a man months before his execution would have proceeded, assuming the Supreme Court would have allowed it at all. To date, Richard is the last U.S. inmate put to death.
A collection of activists have since decried Keller's actions. Protesters have gathered outside her North Austin mansion carrying clocks set to 5:00. A band called Possumhead, fronted by an Austin lawyer, recorded a grungy song with the blunt refrain "Sharon is a killer, a really lethal killer." Meanwhile, a like-minded blog named Sharonkiller.com, already in operation after some of the judge's past mishaps, includes a series of fake personal entries: "Maybe I should sell and move back to Dallas and help out at Dad's hamburger stand before my house becomes a stop on one of those Duck bus tours of Austin," the fake judge writes. "Tomorrow is Halloween and I'm going as myself, boo."
While the real Keller has made other baffling decisions and public statements over the years, her latest actions have stirred an epic backlash that extends far beyond the protests of anti-death-penalty activists. She's been mocked in Newsweek, scolded by The Dallas Morning News and asked to step down by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly. Powerful, prominent attorneys, including a former head of the State Bar of Texas, have filed official complaints against her and lambasted the judge to anyone with a notebook or microphone.
"It's hard to imagine anything she could have done that could have been worse than this," says Michol O'Connor, a retired appellate judge in Houston. "I think she should be removed. I wouldn't trust any decision she could make after this. This is such a fundamental issue—the right to get a piece of paper in court—how can we trust her on more complicated issues?"
Even lawyers who praise Keller's work ethic and sense of decorum can't believe she expedited an execution after the Supreme Court clearly gave condemned inmates across the country one last chance to appeal.
"Sharon is a friend of mine. I think she's a delightful person off the bench, but from a legal standpoint, the decision to shut the clerk's office at five when even Ray Charles could have seen that there were papers coming in to stay this execution was unconscionable," says Houston defense attorney and Court TV analyst Brian Wice. "From a non-legal standpoint, it was a knuckleheaded move."
It seems like just about no one these days can defend Keller's actions. Not even the daughter of Marguerite Dixon, the woman Michael Richard was convicted of murdering 20 years ago. "It sounded to me like she was just being arbitrary," says Celeste Dixon. "She had a chance to at least hear the arguments, and she chose to take her powers as a judge and make a decision without any thought."