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Judge would still shut doors

Judge would still shut doors

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By PAUL J. WEBER

Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- A Texas judge who closed her court before a death row inmate's last-minute appeal was complete testified in her misconduct trial Wednesday that she would do the same thing again.

Judge Sharon Keller, whose career is on the line in this misconduct trial, was asked whether she would take the same action if she got the same phone call again under identical circumstances.

She said, "Yes, that is correct."

Lawyers for convicted killer Michael Wayne Richard had asked for more time to file an appeal on the day of his execution. They sought a reprieve based on a Supreme Court decision that morning to review whether Kentucky's means of lethal injection was constitutional.

Keller received a phone call at 4:45 p.m. asking to keep the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals open past 5 p.m. She said no twice in the conversation, which lasted less than two minutes.

Richard, twice convicted of the 1986 rape and slaying of a Houston-area nurse and mother of seven, was executed at 8:23 p.m. that day. He was the last Texas inmate to be executed until the Supreme Court reaffirmed months later that lethal injection was acceptable.

Keller is facing five counts of judicial misconduct that could lead to her removal from the bench. She says Richard was not refused a final appeal because his attorneys could have filed directly with a judge on the nine-member court after hours.

"You declined to allow any grace period?" asked Mike McKetta, the prosecuting lawyer for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

"I declined to keep the clerk's office open past closing time," Keller responded.

Keller said earlier Wednesday that there was no legitimate reason to keep the court open because Richard's attorneys had had "all day" to file and had other options.

Richard's sister and two other family members shook their heads at times while listening to Keller, the presiding judge of the state's highest criminal appeals court, testify for the second day. Her testimony ended Wednesday afternoon.

On the morning of Richard's scheduled lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a case that challenged the constitutionality of a three-drug combination Kentucky used in executions. Lawyers for Richard, who had had numerous earlier appeals denied, sought a reprieve based on that decision because Texas used a similar lethal cocktail.

Keller said she knew about the move by the Supreme Court on Richard's execution day. Asked if she held a general view that last-minute pleadings in death-row cases are often relatively insubstantial, she agreed.

"They do tend to be voluminous and meritless," Keller said.

Richard's never-filed appeal provoked a nationwide outcry against Keller, nicknamed "Sharon Killer" among critics for her tough-on-crime reputation. Lawyers filed complaints with the state, and one state lawmaker tried to have Keller impeached.

She is the highest-ranking judge in Texas ever put on trial by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Keller will not face a ruling at the end of the trial. Instead, the state district judge presiding over the proceeding will submit a report to the state's judicial conduct commission, which will have the choice of dismissing the charges, issuing a censure or recommending her removal from the bench.

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