Tuesday, September 19, 2006

CCA's Sharon Keller outvoted 8-1: Innocent woman released, seeks custody of child

I've said before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is Texas' worst court, and Texas Monthly agrees. (To be fair, the matter has been the subject of some debate - several courts are in the running.)

Much of the CCAs reputation for unfairness can be attributed to the court's leadership, especially Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, a former assistant district attorney from Dallas whose reflexive tendency to side with the prosecution is, without embellishment, legendary among legal circles. The case of Brandy Del Briggs provides another example why, via the Texas Moratorium Network:
The Houston Chronicle is reporting ["Briggs facing all new struggles," Sept. 18] that Brandy Del Briggs is seeking to regain custody of the child she had lost custody of after she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her other child. Briggs was exonerated and released after spending five years in prison wrongfully convicted of killing her other child. This is another case to add to the list of cases of innocent people that Sharon Keller voted to keep in prison. In this case, Keller was the only member of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who voted to deny relief to Brandy Del Briggs. The [December 2005] vote on the court was 8-1 with Keller being the one. Everyone else voted to overturn the conviction on grounds that the "applicant's attorney failed to adequately investigate this case under the standards set out in Strickland v. Washington and Wiggins v. Smith." Keller argued in her dissent that the trial counsel was not ineffective, but that he was following a "reasonable trial strategy."

Despite Keller's attempts to keep an innocent woman in prison, Brandy Del Briggs was released in December 2005. Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal later dropped charges against her because he could not prove she was guilty. [...]

Experts who reviewed the records for her appellate attorney, Charles Portz, said a birth defect had caused a bacterial infection in the infant, who had been in and out of hospitals. They also said a breathing tube mistakenly was inserted in Daniel's stomach rather than his lungs at Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital, depriving his brain of oxygen for at least 30 minutes.

His death originally was ruled a homicide, but Harris County Medical Examiner Luis Sanchez later changed the ruling to "undetermined," saying he found no evidence of abuse.
So in this case, medical evidence would have shown Briggs' actual innocence, but her original attorney didn't bother to look into it and recommended a plea bargain. Keller thought the defendant should be punished, anyway - that the omission didn't rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel. To me, if that's true, what omission or error possibly would? Read the majority opinion and Keller's dissent.

Keller is up for re-election in November, but unfortunately does not face a credible opponent. (She does have a satirical spoof-blog tracking the campaign; subtly titled "Judge Sharon Killer," it includes a post on the Briggs case.)

Keller recently has taken up the cause of increased funding for indigent defense, which may offer some cause for optimism that her hard-line views are changing over time. But to judge by her opinion in Briggs, her draconian judicial philosophies don't appear to have budged much.

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