Texas judge accused of turning away death row inmate's appeal goes before disciplinary board

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Prosecutors say Sharon Keller is "not the right person" to be the highest-ranking criminal judge in Texas if she can't admit she wrongly turned away a death row inmate's attorneys the night of his execution.

Keller appeared Friday before a state disciplinary panel. It's been nearly three years since the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said "We close at 5" while lawyers ran late with a last-minute appeal.

Attorney Mike McKetta says Keller needs to accept accountability as the "public face" of justice in Texas. McKetta is representing state officials who filed five counts of judicial misconduct against Keller.

The disciplinary panel could dismiss the charges, censure Keller or recommend her removal from the bench.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A Texas judge charged with closing her court before a death row inmate could file a last-minute appeal faces possible punishment Friday by a state panel that could recommend her removal from the bench.

Judge Sharon Keller is charged with five counts of judicial misconduct, nearly three years after she famously said "We close at 5" while attorneys for a condemned man scrambled to file an appeal hours before his execution.

Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, has asked the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to side with a report last year that said she was undeserving of any sanction beyond "the public humiliation she has surely suffered."

Critics from death penalty opponents to The New York Times editorial board want Keller gone. But Keller faces no criminal charges, and the commission has recommended removing a judge not under indictment only six times since 2002.

"It has to be very serious," said former commission chairman James Hall, a San Antonio lawyer whose term ended in 2005. "They do not take that lightly."

The last time the state removed a judge who wasn't under indictment was 2005. All who have recently been removed were either municipal judges who fell behind on required casework or ill-behaving justices of the peace.

Keller is the highest-ranking criminal judge in Texas, presiding over the court of last resort for inmates on death row. That would make her ouster a virtually unprecedented decision in the recent history of the 13-member commission.

Prosecutors have not recommended a punishment for Keller, but they don't rule out the commission finding her conduct bad enough to warrant removal.

Leading the charge against Keller is Seana Willing, the commissioner's executive director, who is known as the examiner in the case.

"The examiners will present a case where that option is on the table," Willing said.

Chip Babcock, Keller's attorney, dismissed the possibility of Keller losing her job.

"Judge Keller did get over 2 million votes the last three times she ran for election," Babcock said. "So you're negating the will of the electorate over a 60-second phone call."

Few conversations so brief have stirred such uproar. It was September 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.

The phone call was prompted by attorneys for Michael Wayne Richard, a twice-convicted killer scheduled for execution that night. They told the court that 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.

A state district judge who oversaw Keller's ethics trial last year recommended she receive no "further reprimand beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered." But the ultimate decision rests with the commission.

The panel consists of six judges, two attorneys and five appointed members. They can dismiss the charges, censure Keller or recommend her removal to the Texas Supreme Court.

All but six of the 33 judges recommended for removal by the commission since 2002 also faced criminal charges for their alleged misdeeds. Of those six, four were municipal judges who fell behind on required judicial education hours.

The others were justices of the peace, one of whom was videotaped yelling racial slurs at prisoners. The second was accused of sexual harassment on the job.