Did Unbudging Texas Bureaucrats Kill a Man? Court Told Condemned Man: Sorry, We're Closing

The state of Texas executed death row inmate Michael Richard because the court responsible for his sentence was unwilling to remain open an additional 20 minutes to receive a petition for a stay on his execution. Business hours were to be respected, and Richard was killed, on schedule, by lethal injection.

Death row inmate Michael Richard was executed by lethal injection in Texas on Sept. 25, 2007.

Death row inmate Michael Richard was executed by lethal injection in Texas on Sept. 25, 2007.

When it comes to Texas justice, 20 minutes could mean the difference between life and death. The Austin-American Statesman newspaper reported this week that the state executed death row inmate Michael Richard on Sept. 25 -- because bureaucrats couldn't be bothered to wait 20 minutes to receive his lawyers' appeal for a stay.

According to the newspaper, when the lawyers explained to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals at 4:50 p.m. that their computer had crashed and they needed extra time, they were told: "We're closing at 5."

The case has sparked outrage in the United States and is providing fodder for opponents of capital punishment. In an editorial, the Dallas Morning News described the action as "unconscionable." The paper wrote: "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."

Earlier on the day of Michael Richard's scheduled execution, the US Supreme Court had agreed to review the constitutionality of death by legal injection in the spring of 2008. The decision was in response to the appeals of two death row inmates from Kentucky, who argued that this was a form of "cruel and unusual punishment." It's the first time since 1879 that the Supreme Court has accepted an appeal against a method of execution.

Attorneys for Richard, convicted of having committed rape and murder 20 years ago, scrambled just hours later to file an appeal for a stay of execution based on the new development. Normally, the attorneys could have appealed directly to the US Supreme Court, which stays open on the night of executions, if the Court of Criminal Appeals had rejected their petition.

But because it was closed, according to the Austin-American Statesman, they then turned to a Houston district judge to stop the execution. The denial there, however, put the case on a "different procedural path to the high court, eventually dooming the attempt," Andrea Keilen of the Texas Defender Service, which represented Richard, told the newspaper. "Basically, it came down to a procedural technicality that Richard was executed," Keilen said, describing the event as an "inexcusable failure."

Since capital punishment was reinstated in the US in 1976, 1,099 people have been executed -- 928 by legal injection, a method that has been employed for the last 25 years. The state of Texas has long led in executions, applying capital punishment to 400 people since 1976.

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