U.S. News

Complaint filed against Texas judge in execution

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A Texas judge violated an executed man’s rights when she refused to keep the court clerk’s office open past closing time to receive last-minute appeals, 20 lawyers said in a complaint filed on Thursday.

Michael Richard, 49, was executed by lethal injection on September 25, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court said it would decide whether that method violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Even before the high court’s action, states were putting lethal injections on hold. No one has been executed in the United States since Richard, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Texas has executed 405 people -- the most among U.S. states -- since the Supreme Court lifted a national ban on the practice in 1976.

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin refused to allow Richard’s attorneys to file pleadings on the question of the constitutionality of lethal injunction, according to the complaint filed with Texas’ State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

His attorneys had asked that the court clerk’s office remain open 20 minutes past the 1700 CDT (2200 GMT) closing time because their computers had failed as they were preparing their pleadings.

Richard, a convicted murderer, was executed about three hours later.

Keller refused the request even though she was not the judge assigned to the case and other judges were prepared to stay late to consider the appeals, the lawyers said.

“I think the conduct of Keller was so outrageous,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project who oversaw the filing of the complaint. “She subverted the law, as chief judge.”

The complaint accuses Keller of violating Richard’s constitutional right to access to the courts and his right to due process of law.

A spokesman for Keller and the nine-member appeals court declined to comment.

Last week Keller said in the Houston Chronicle, “You’re asking me whether something different would have happened if we had stayed open, and I think the question ought to be why didn’t they file something on time? They had all day.”

The judicial conduct commission’s proceedings are closed, so the outcome may never be known.

The Supreme Court said last month it would review an appeal from two Kentucky death row inmates who argue that the three-drug mixture used in lethal injections violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.