Supreme Court to Hear Death Penalty Case of Duane Buck Based on Racially Tainted Testimony of Witness

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in the case of Duane Buck, a convicted Texas murderer who was sentenced to die after an expert witness testified that Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black.

There is no doubt about Duane Buck’s guilt or the gruesome nature of his crime. He shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in front of her children while she begged for her life. Buck also killed the man he thought she was sleeping with. And he shot his own stepsister, who was at the scene, though she survived.

While the jury easily convicted Buck, it had trouble deciding whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. The jurors were out for two days, sending four notes to the judge, focusing, apparently, on the question of future dangerousness. Under Texas law, a jury cannot sentence a defendant to death unless it unanimously concludes he poses a future danger.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, Buck’s lawyer put psychologist Walter Quijano on the witness stand. Quijano testified that statistically Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes because he is black. The prosecution then drove that point home during cross-examination, asking Quijano, “You have determined that … the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?”

At his trial, Buck heard Quijano’s testimony and couldn’t understand why nobody objected, as he later told his new lawyer during a prison interview recorded for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“Out of all the things, that stood out because it’s like you think they’re saying because you black, you need to die,” recalled Buck. “I felt that was strange because my lawyer didn’t say nothing, nobody else, you know, the prosecutor or the judge. It’s like it was an everyday thing in the courts.”

Although Buck kept losing his appeals in the Texas courts, by 2000, an appeal based on Quijano’s testimony in another case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the case was pending, then-Attorney General John Cornyn formally admitted that the state of Texas had denied the defendant his “constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin,” and that the psychologist’s references to race “seriously undermined the fairness, integrity” and “reputation of the judicial process.”

Cornyn also announced at the time that his office had identified six other capital cases in which defendants were sentenced to die after similar racial claims by Quijano. In three of the cases, including Buck’s, Quijano was put on the witness stand by the defense, and in three others, he was called by the prosecution. But Cornyn pledged that the state would not object if all the inmates sought a new sentencing hearing.

The state lived up to that pledge for five of the six death row inmates. But in Buck’s case, Cornyn’s successor, now Gov. Greg Abbott, reneged.

In the ensuing years, new lawyers acting for Buck repeatedly appealed his sentence on grounds that he’d been denied effective assistance of counsel. But they lost because the claim was raised too late.

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SOURCE: NPR, Nina Totenberg