Sharon Keller
Eric Gay  /  AP
Judge Sharon Keller, in a 2007 file photo, waits for her trial to begin at the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio.
By
updated 7/16/2010 8:15:34 PM ET 2010-07-17T00:15:34

The top criminal judge in Texas was spared her job Friday but still punished by a state panel, which reprimanded Sharon Keller for her fumbled handling of a death row inmate's final appeal the night of 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.

Death penalty opponents and critics nationwide 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.

Keller escaped the harshest punishment. But the commission did not find her without fault.

Her actions constitute "willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties," the commission wrote in its 19-page ruling.

State officials who prosecuted Keller declined comment on the decision.

Keller's attorney, Chip Babcock, said he was "gratified" that the panel chose such a mild sanction 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 that 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, who had yet to speak with Keller late Friday, said it was likely she would appeal.

The punishment brought resolution to an uproar that began in September 2007, when attorneys for Michael Wayne Richard scrambled to assemble a last-minute appeal hours before his scheduled execution for the 1986 rape and slaying of a Houston-area nurse.

Seeking more time, Richard's attorneys called Keller's court to ask if they could file their appeal after hours. Keller twice said "no" when a court staffer brought the matter to her.

"We close at 5," Keller said.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals assigns a judge to remain on duty until an execution is carried out. The commission ruled that Keller's refusal on the phone was an intentional step to turn away Richard's appeal without referring the filing to the assigned judge that night.

The ruling went on to say that Keller engaged in "willful or persistent conduct that casts public discredit on the judiciary."

A Republican elected to the court in 2006, 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 Keller.

The Texas Defender Service, which represented Richard, did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

Richard's attorneys told the court in 2007 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.

Richard would become the last condemned inmate in 2007 to be put to death anywhere in the country.

Keller's term expires in 2012. She has not indicated whether she will run for re-election and has declined requests for interviews since being charged.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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