Was Duane Buck Sentenced to Death Because He's Black? Will It Matter?
During Duane Buck's 1997 murder trial in Harris County, a psychologist told the jury that Buck was more likely to be a danger to society because he was black.
Photo from the NAACP LDF Was Duane Buck sentenced to death because he's black?
This would be a huge deal in pretty much any legal situation, but the statement had more direct life or death ramifications in Buck's trial because the jurors were deciding on whether to hand down the death penalty.
He was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murders of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and a man who was with her, Kenneth Butler. He also shot his stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, but Taylor survived. The big question here has never been about Buck's guilt but about his death sentence.
A few years after Buck was convicted, the psychologist, Walter Quijano, was cited by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn for giving racially influenced testimony to juries. Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, identified seven cases that needed to be reviewed for sentencing and Buck's is one of them.
While Cornyn named seven cases to be reviewed, Buck's and one other case were not because the defense lawyer, not the prosecution, asked Quijano questions that hinged on the subject of race, Sara Kinney, public information officer for the Harris County District Attorney's Office said. (Basically, since the defense brought the issue in, the prosecution isn't responsible for their mistake.)
He was slated to be executed in September 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened; granting a rare stay while the justices reviewed the case. (The Supreme Court also got the ball rolling on this whole issue years ago, finding that race was improperly used in sentencing Victor Saldano. Quijano was the psychologist who testified on that case as well.)
The justices ultimately declined to hear the case, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented on and Justice Elena Kagan joined up on Sotomayor's dissent.
"Buck did not argue that his race made him less dangerous, and the prosecutor had no need to revisit the issue," Sotomayor wrote. "But she did, in a question specifically designed to persuade the jury that Buck's race made him more dangerous and that, in part on this basis, he should be sentenced to death."
No matter what Sotomayor and Kagan expressed in their dissent of the Supreme's decision, declining to hear the case put Buck back on track for execution and now his attorneys are waiting to see if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will grant a new sentencing hearing.