There’s no question that Duane Buck is to blame for the 1995 double-murder of his ex-girlfriend and her friend on July 30 in Houston. According to The Intercept, Buck forced his way into the home of Debra Gardner armed with a rifle and shotgun and opened fire. He took aim at one of Gardner’s friends first, but missed. He then shot his stepsister straight in the chest; she survived. He also shot and killed another one of Gardner’s friends named Kenneth Butler. Gardner ran from her home, after which Buck followed and shot her dead in the street while her two children looked on. In 1997, he was tried and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die.
The issue now is whether racially charged testimony from a psychologist caused Buck to be sentenced to death rather than life in prison. His legal team opted to retain a now discredited psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck poses more of a danger to society because he is African-American. His racially charged testimony went unchecked in early court proceedings, and even after Buck was given a new lawyer.
Racism permeating the criminal justice system also had a lot to do with his harsh sentencing. According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Maryland, investigators in Harris County were more than three times as likely to seek the death penalty against Black defendants than white defendants, and jurors were more than twice as likely to sentence Black defendants to death, The Intercept reports.
“Mr. Buck received a death sentence that is the product of explicit and blatant racial discrimination,” one of Buck’s attorneys, Kate Black, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental constitutional principle that racial discrimination has no place in our modern system of justice.”
Per Think Progress, Buck is now seeking authorization to get “determination of whether ‘extraordinary circumstances’ exist that would permit a lower court to determine whether the racist testimony elicited by his own counsel prejudiced the outcome of his sentencing proceeding.” If he is successful in doing so, he then gets a new sentencing hearing. That trial would literally be a matter of life and death.
Former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who is now a U.S. senator, conducted a review of capital cases back in 2000 and found that this wasn’t the first time Quijano offered racially charged testimony in a death penalty case. Cornyn’s staff discovered six other cases where the psychologist offered similar statements. In Buck’s trial, Quijano testified that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be dangerous because they’re “over represented in the Criminal Justice System,” Think Progress reports. Cornyn’s office then declared that it wouldn’t stand in the way of inmates seeking to overturn their sentences based on testimony given by Quijano.
“Infusion of race as a factor for the jury to weigh in making its determination violated [a defendant’s] constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin,” they said in a brief submitted in one of the cases.
Unfortunately, six of the inmates who requested new sentences were subsequently re-sentenced to death, 3 of whom who have already been executed, according to The Intercept. In Buck’s case, the State of Texas reneged on its promise and determined that Buck didn’t deserve a new hearing because it was his own legal counsel who called the psychologist to testify. Now, he faces a similar fate if the Supreme Court doesn’t step in to hear his case.
A glimmer of hope came in 2013 when the Supreme Court decided that “there should be a ‘narrow exception’ to the previously existing rule that an attorney’s ignorance or inadvertence in a post-conviction proceeding does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default,” Think Progress reports. This gave Buck another chance to turn around the ineffective legal counsel he had received in the past. Now armed with six lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, founded by Justice Thurgood Marshall, Buck has a good shot at receiving a new hearing.