In written arguments, the commission contends that Judge Keller circumvented normal procedures, which provide for after-hours appeals in capital cases. Judge Keller responds that the lawyers for the inmate, Michael Richard, a convicted murderer who made no claim of innocence, should have filed their paperwork with the assigned duty judge rather than trying to go through the clerk’s office. The trial, expected to last most of the week, promises to unfold as a finely wrought dance around the details of an afternoon’s timeline. At issue are such intricacies as whether the words “court” and “clerk” were used interchangeably and the extent to which the inmate’s lawyers conveyed the computer problems that delayed their paperwork. At the end of the proceeding, Judge Berchelmann will make recommendations to the commission, which in turn will consider further action. The commission has the power to censure a judge or to recommend removal by a tribunal. As the lawyers presented their opening arguments Monday, Judge Keller slumped a bit in her chair. “This is not a referendum or a debate or a poll concerning the death penalty,” said John J. McKetta, the examiner presenting the commission’s case, who argued that Judge Keller had proved incompetent to administer capital punishment with the necessary gravity, discretion and care. “If all she did was field a call where somebody said, ‘I’ve forgotten what the closing time is,’ and she said, ‘Five o’clock, don’t you remember?,’ we shouldn’t be here today,” Mr. McKetta said.
A lawyer for Judge Keller, Charles L. Babcock, argued that the entire case amounted to a few innocent, misunderstood words spoken on the telephone. “Judge Keller is an honorable, competent, popularly elected judge who believes in and follows the rule of law,” Mr. Babcock said. After opening arguments, the commission called witnesses including Judge Cheryl Johnson of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the assigned duty judge on the night of the execution. Judge Johnson testified that she had waited after closing time but never received a call. “If I had known that they had asked for time, I would have granted it,” she said of Mr. Richard’s lawyers. “It’s an execution.” When the hearing broke, Judge Keller, 56, walked to the elevator in silence, accompanied by lawyers, escorted by deputies and trailed by protesters.