Panel: Top Texas criminal judge accused of turning away death row inmate's appeal can keep job

The top criminal judge in Texas was spared her job but still punished Friday by a state panel that reprimanded embattled Judge Sharon Keller for turning away a death-row inmate's late appeal hours before his 2007 execution.

Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, had faced removal from the bench. But the State Commission on Judicial Conduct instead slapped her with a "public warning," one of the least severe sanctions at its disposal.

The resolution to what became a three-year saga seemed to leave neither side satisfied. Keller sought nothing short of an exoneration, and her critics grumbled over the panel letting her off with a light rebuke.

Death penalty opponents and observers had waited nearly three years to find out whether Keller would lose her job after famously saying "We close at 5" while attorneys for a twice-convicted killer scrambled to file a last-minute appeal.

Recommending Keller's removal would have amounted to a historically extraordinary move by the panel. But the 13-member commission didn't find her without fault.

Keller's actions constituted "willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties," the panel wrote in a 19-page ruling.

Keller was also found to have cast "public discredit on the judiciary."

Chip Babcock, Keller's attorney, said he was "gratified" the panel chose such a mild reprimand but was upset that five charges of judicial misconduct were not outright dismissed.

Last fall, a state district judge who presided over Keller's ethics trial recommended she be punished no further "beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered."

"We are disappointed and shocked that the commission overturned the findings," Babcock said.

Babcock said Keller would appeal.

The Texas Moratorium Network, an anti-death penalty group that had wanted Keller ousted, called the ruling a worst-case scenario.

"It's a public warning that validates what we were saying about Sharon Keller," said Scott Cobb, the group's president. "Yet she can still keep her job."

State officials who prosecuted Keller declined comment on the decision. Seana Willing, the commission's executive director, had never suggested a punishment while leading the case against Keller.

But prosecutors appearing before the panel last month said Keller didn't deserve to be the face of the state's eminent death-penalty court if she couldn't accept responsibility for her actions.

Keller, a Republican elected to the court in 2006, is the highest-ranking criminal judge in Texas, presiding over the court of last resort for inmates on death row. Her term expires in 2012.

It is unclear if Keller, who has declined interview requests, will run for re-election.

The uproar began Sept. 25, 2007, when Keller received a phone call from a court staffer around 4:45 p.m. to ask if the clerk's office could stay open late. Twice in the conversation, Keller said no.

"We close at 5," Keller told the court staffer.

The phone call was prompted by attorneys for Michael Wayne Richard, who was scheduled to die that night for the 1986 rape and slaying of a Houston-area nurse. They told the court computer problems had delayed their appeal, which they were cobbling together after a U.S. Supreme Court review that morning effectively suspended executions nationwide.

Feeling they had been turned away, Richard's lawyers never filed the appeal. Richard was executed that night, becoming the last condemned inmate in 2007 to be put to death anywhere in the country.

The Texas Defender Service, which represented Richard, did not immediately return phone calls or e-mails for comment Friday.

Keller has been long mocked as "Sharon Killer" for her record on death-penalty cases. Babcock has partly blamed Keller's prosecution on death-penalty opponents who seized the dustup as a chance to finally oust her.