A Texan judge found herself on trial yesterday after refusing to break off dealing with a repairman at her home and return to her courthouse to hear a stay of execution.
The lawyer of Michael Wayne Richard, a convicted murderer and rapist, had telephoned the courthouse in Austin, asking if it could be kept open for a few extra minutes on 25 September 2005, because a computer problem had caused a delay in filing paperwork for a last-ditch appeal.
Judge Sharon Keller of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – who had popped home to meet a repairman – refused, declaring: "We close at 5pm." Three-and-a-half hours later, Richard was killed by lethal injection.
The case of Ms Keller, a Republican nicknamed "Sharon Killer" because of the tough-on-crime reputation she has crafted during her nine years as presiding judge, has inflamed passions on both sides of the death penalty debate.
On the day of Richard's execution, the US Supreme Court had agreed to review the constitutionality of death by lethal injection. The sudden decision gave his lawyers a small window of opportunity to appeal for a stay of execution.
But a faulty email system made them 20 minutes late delivering appeal papers, and Ms Keller refused to return to work and read them.
Ms Keller went before a misconduct panel yesterday accused of behaving in a manner that was "arbitrary" and "inappropriate". At the end of the five-day hearing, she could be either censured or removed from office.
"It's one thing for a banker to close shop at 5pm sharp. But a public official who stands between a human being and the death chamber must be held to a higher standard," Texas state legislator Lou Burnham, a Democrat, said yesterday.
Other critics say Ms Keller's case illustrates systematic flaws in a state where elected judges execute more people than any other in America – especially when they hail from an ethnic minority. Nine of the 16 men put to death this year in Texas, including Richard, have been black. Another six were Hispanic; only one was white.
"Sharon Keller is exhibit A on why we need a moratorium on executions in Texas," said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, which campaigns against the death penalty. "We run the major risk of having an innocent person executed if the judiciary is not running properly, and it's not as long as Sharon Keller is presiding," he added.
The 56-year-old judge is expected to give evidence during the misconduct hearing in San Antonio this week, and claim that the alleged computer glitches were never properly explained to her.
"If there had been some comment about computer problems, I would have started thinking in a different direction," she said in papers filed earlier this year.
Ms Keller is likely to note the incongruity of her 15-year career being threatened by the case of Richard, who raped and killed a mother of seven in 1986.Reuse content