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The Power of Now
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Federal Court Vacates Death Sentence of NAACP Legal Defense Fund Client Duane Buck Following Supreme Court Victory Last Month
Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the racially-biased death sentence imposed on NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) client Duane Buck. This ruling follows a February 2017 decision by the United States Supreme Court unequivocally condemning the introduction of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing and declaring Mr. Buck’s trial counsel constitutionally ineffective for introducing this “toxin” into his capital sentencing hearing. The Texas Attorney General joined LDF in recommending that the Court of Appeals vacate Mr. Buck’s death sentence just one day earlier.
“The joint recommendation demonstrates that all parties agree that the Supreme Court’s decision unequivocally establishes that Duane Buck’s death sentence is unconstitutional, and the lower court decisions to the contrary were wrong,” said Christina Swarns, Counsel of Record for Mr. Buck and LDF’s Litigation Director. “It is now time to put this shameful example of explicit racial bias behind us. And, given that Mr. Buck has had no disciplinary infractions during his 20 years of incarceration – and has therefore abundantly demonstrated that he is not a future danger – we urge the State of Texas to forego a new death sentence for Mr. Buck.”
“This ruling is a great victory for the cause of equal justice,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “But it is also a sobering reminder of the racial inequities that persist in our nation’s use of the death penalty, unfairly endangering Black lives and eroding faith in the justice system. This decision vacating Mr. Buck’s death sentence is an especially powerful message given the persistence of racialized fears, stereotypes and discrimination in this country.”
Mr. Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 after his own trial counsel knowingly introduced “expert” evidence that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is Black. Although Texas conceded error based on similar testimony by Dr. Walter Quijano in six other cases, and promised to do the same in Mr. Buck’s case, it reneged on its promise to Mr. Buck alone. Writing for the 6-2 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts reaffirmed the longstanding principle that “[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are” and “[d]ispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.” Texas now has 180 days from the district court’s order to decide whether to agree to a life sentence for Mr. Buck or initiate proceedings for a new trial on the issue of punishment only. LDF represents Mr. Buck along with the Texas Defender Service and Holland & Knight, LLP.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.