The Judgment of Sharon Keller

As she goes on trial this month, nearly everyone—journalists, lawyers, and even some of her colleagues—is calling for her head, but is the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals the monster she’s been made out to be?
The Judgment Of Sharon Keller
Illustration by Mark Summers

The most infamous phone call in recent Texas history came on the afternoon of September 25, 2007, when, at 4:45, Ed Marty, the general counsel of the Court of Criminal Appeals, dialed Sharon Keller, the court’s presiding judge. Both were in Austin; he was at the courthouse and she had gone home earlier to meet a repairman. One hundred and forty miles away, at the Walls Unit, in Huntsville, Michael Richard (pronounced “Ree- shard”) sat in a cell adjacent to the execution chamber. He was scheduled to die that evening for a murder he’d committed in 1986. The CCA, the state’s highest criminal court and the final arbiter in all death penalty cases, was waiting for his last appeal.

But Marty had a question for Keller. It seemed that Richard’s attorneys were having some computer problems that were preventing them from getting their motion for a stay filed before the clerk’s office closed, at 5. They wanted to know if they could deliver it after-hours—5:15, 5:30 at the latest. Keller, who has been on the CCA since 1994 and the presiding judge since 2000, listened to Marty’s question. Under her leadership the court has been one of the more conservative in the country, developing a reputation, especially on the left, for rubber-stamping death sentences. Her reply would cement this: “We close at five.”

Keller’s statement

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