Criminal Court Closes at Five – Even When Life is at Stake
By: Gerri L. Elder
Have you ever walked up to the post office door and yanked on it, only to find it locked at 5:01pm? That’s how it goes, closing time means closing time. People who work for the government have busy lives, and much more important things to do than to stay open to mail your letter, or possibly even save your life.
As infuriating as it is to arrive in what you think is ‘just in time’ to find an office locked up for the day, for most people it is not a matter of life or death. However, for one Texas inmate, it was just that. His life was on the line.
On the morning of September 25, the US Supreme Court announced that it would agree to review an appeal by two Kentucky death row inmates who are challenging the legality of death by lethal injection.
On that same day, Michael Richard, who was on death row in Texas, was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6pm. He had been convicted of the 1986 rape and murder of a woman and was sentenced to the death penalty for the crimes.
When Richard’s criminal defense attorneys heard the announcement by the US Supreme Court that morning, they went into overdrive and drafted an appeal, on Richard’s behalf, to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court is the state’s highest court for criminal law cases.
As fate would have it, a computer malfunction slowed Richard’s criminal defense attorneys down that day. At 4:50pm they called the court to let them know what was happening, that they intended to file the appeal and that their client was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6pm. They asked that the court remain open until 5:20pm so that the appeal could be filed, and possibly save their client’s life, even of only for a little while.
Reportedly, an unsympathetic clerk told them plainly, “We close at five.”
Since they could not get the cooperation of the local court, Richard’s lawyers took their case to the Supreme Court, because the Supreme Court stays open for executions.
By filing the appeal with the Supreme Court, the lawyers were able to stall the execution for several hours. However, since the appeal was not able to be filed first with the local court, it was rejected in Washington.
So, as a result of the local court not staying open for an extra 20 minutes due to the unusual circumstances Richard’s lawyers faced that day, the man was executed and pronounced dead at 8:23pm.
Texas has not executed another inmate since September 25th.
A leading daily newspaper in Texas, the Dallas Morning News, was outraged by the court’s decision not to stay open for Richard’s appeal. The paper ran a scathing editorial titled, “We Closed at 5″.
The editorial read, in part, “Hastening the death of a man, even a bad one, because office personnel couldn’t be bothered to bend bureaucratic procedure was a breathtakingly petty act and evinced a relish for death that makes the blood of decent people run cold.”
Texas has put to death more than 400 people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the country in 1976.
The Guardian Unlimited reports that, as of early November, Texas will accept emergency email appeals in death row cases. The decision came only two weeks after nearly 300 lawyers signed a petition demanding this practice.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the case concerning the constitutionality of lethal injection, no inmates in the United States besides Michael Richard have been executed.