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Texas Judge Fights Discipline Case over 'We Close at 5' Execution

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By Jason Beahm on September 14, 2010 6:57 AM

"We close at 5."

Those four words have taken Texas Judge Sharon Keller for quite a ride. Keller uttered the words on September 25, 2007, to Ed Marty, general counsel for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Marty had called the Texas judge regarding a last minute appeal for Michael Richard, who was on death row and whose execution was to occur later that evening. Marty claims that the attorneys were having computer problems in their attempt to file a last-minute appeal. The appeal was based on a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that had been issued the same day.

Keller was allegedly at home overseeing work from a repairman when she got the call from Marty and stated her now infamous words, "we close at 5." After Richard's attorneys missed the deadline, Richards was executed by lethal injection at 8:23 p.m. that evening. A public outcry followed, with Keller portrayed as cold, callous and indifferent to the imminent execution of Richards. Keller contends that she was merely stating a fact: the clerks office, as a government building, closed at 5 p.m. She is said to have thought nothing of the comment at the time, Time reports.

Keller now finds herself facing charges from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for a "willful and persistent" failure to comply with required protocols for last-minute appeals.

It's a polarizing case that has been of major public interest. Death penalty opponents see it as a clear case of judicial misconduct. Keller's defenders say that she is not responsible for the fact that the attorneys admittedly filed their appeal late.

It's a tough case to draw lessons from, though the most obvious is to always consider the gravity of the situation and avoid relying exclusively on the technical side of the law. In matters of great importance, life and death being one, it's best to error on the side of caution. It's usually better to cover your...you know...instead of remaining rigid and facing the prospect of charges of misconduct.

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