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Texas justice and deadlines that kill

There are deadlines, and then there are deadlines. In Texas they are one in the same. A judge in Texas is under fire even in Texas for slamming the courthouse doors shut on a man trying to appeal his death sentence. After dealing with computer problems, his lawyers were but a few minutes late, arriving at the courthouse shortly after 5:00 p.m., when the Judge closed up for the day. The death row inmate's papers were late-filed, and therefore not filed at all. A lawyer's worst nighmare! Showing up to court only a few minutes late, and the case is thrown out.

This was an even greater nightmare for the death row inmate. Since the court did not hear his appeal, he was put to death. Even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court had just agreed to deal with the very legal issue that could have saved the life of this inmate. So that if the Texas judge had allowed his lawyers to late file his papers -- an accommodation that happens all the time, especially in death row cases -- the inmate could have ultimately won his case in the event the Supreme Court resolves that issue in his favor.

The whole sorry tale is told in this extensive newspaper article which makes it clear that the Judge in this case was an ass and people think she should be removed from the bench. Here's the gist of the story:

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.

If you're reading this from a country outside the United States, you might wonder how a country can be home to both open-minded and tolerant San Francisco and New York City and this place called Texas. It's because the United States has over 300 million people and 50 states and entire geographic regions which have nothing to do with each other and little in common other than the same language. An article by Associated Press reports, for exampe, that people in Texas the other day saw a UFO and some of them, religious zealots, think it portends the end of times. That response would never happen in New York. Here, we'd probably position ourselves right under the UFO and beg it to take us away to another world.

There is no death penalty in New York. But in Texas, the can't kill them fast enough. A politician probably can't get elected in Texas without supporting the death penalty no more than a politician can get elected in New York City who opposed abortion. People may be upset that the judge sent a man to his death without a fair shake, but they have themselves to blame. Frontier justice in the Wild West will snag the guilty and the innocent.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 19, 2008 1:35 PM.

The previous post in this blog was The New York Times hires its enemy.

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