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A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty and the Duane Buck Case
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Testimony: Duane Buck’s Case, Whose Sentencing Hearing Was Poisoned With Racial Discrimination, Shows That Texas Needs The Racial Justice Act
(Austin, Texas, April 16, 2013) Several prominent Texans submitted testimony to the House of Representatives Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today in support of the Racial Justice Act, which seeks to prohibit the imposition of a death sentence or execution under any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race. The Harris County, Texas, death penalty case of Duane Buck was cited as a clear example of how racial discrimination corrupts Texas’ death penalty system. Mr. Buck, an African American man, was condemned to death in 1997 after his sentencing jury was told that he posed a future danger because he is Black.
The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is hearing testimony today on House Bill 2458, Texas Racial Justice Act, sponsored by Representative Senfronia Thompson, who represents District 141, which includes part of Harris County.
Those offering testimony in favor of the Racial Justice Act include: Mark White, Texas Governor (1983-1987); Linda Geffin, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney who served as a prosecutor in Mr. Buck’s case; and Yannis Banks, Texas NAACP Legislative Liaison.
“The way we determine punishment in the United States is with a fair trial and sentencing. Duane Buck did not receive that. His case, and other cases, shows how racial discrimination can infect Texas’ courtrooms. We cannot condone any form of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system and we must act to end it,” said Governor White in testimony submitted to the Committee. Governor White and more than 100 civil rights leaders, clergy, elected officials, past ABA Presidents and former judges and prosecutors delivered a letter to Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson urging a new, fair sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck.
At Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing in 1997, the prosecutor elicited testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a future danger to society because he is black. The prosecutor relied on this testimony in arguing in favor of a death sentence. The jury accepted the prosecutor’s argument, determined that Mr. Buck was a future danger, and sentenced him to death. Three years later, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was wholly unacceptable. Attorney General Cornyn promised that his office would seek new, fair sentencing hearings for six people, including Mr. Buck, whose cases were tainted by such testimony. The State kept its word in every case – except for Mr. Buck’s.
“I offer my support of this legislative effort, because I believe that Texas cannot, and should not, allow considerations of race to taint the criminal justice process, particularly where the ultimate punishment is at stake,” said former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin, one of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors, in her testimony. Ms. Geffin started an online petition in support of a new, fair sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck, which has garnered more than 30,000 signatures from concerned Texans and people across the country and grows each day.
New research by University of Maryland Professor Ray Paternoster shows that at the time of Mr. Buck’s trial, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African-American defendants like Mr. Buck and Harris County juries were twice as likely to sentence African-American defendants like Mr. Buck to death. This important new study was cited in Mr. Buck’s appeal, which is currently pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
“Mounting research evidence, particularly from Harris County, Texas, suggests that race has played a substantial role in decisions regarding whether a case advances to a death trial and whether a death sentence is imposed,” University of Texas Professor David Kirk stated in expert testimony submitted to the Committee that did not take a position for or against the Racial Justice Act. “Dr. Paternoster's research conforms to highly rigorous standards for statistical analyses. His conclusion - that there is strong evidence of Black-White disparities in the advancement of cases to a death trial as well as the imposition of a death sentence - is the logical, and profoundly disturbing, conclusion to be drawn from the weight of the available data.”
“Duane Buck’s case shows that Texas desperately needs the Racial Justice Act. His sentencing hearing was poisoned with racial discrimination and he must be given a new, fair hearing. Until the government starts treating everyone fairly and equally, no one in Texas can have confidence in the criminal justice system,” said Yannis Banks, Texas NAACP Legislative Liaison, who plans to testify in front of the Committee.
Mr. Buck was convicted of capital murder in Harris County for the shooting deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. A third person, Phyllis Taylor, was shot but survived her wound. She has forgiven Mr. Buck and does not wish to see him executed.
Mr. Buck’s life was spared by the U.S. Supreme Court before his scheduled execution in September 2011. Although two U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed that Mr. Buck’s death sentence required review because “our criminal justice system should not tolerate” a death sentence “marred by racial overtones,” the case is now in the hands of Texas officials.
Mr. Buck’s exemplary behavior while in prison demonstrates the falsity of the racially biased future dangerousness evidence used in his case: In his fifteen years on death row he has not had a single disciplinary write-up.
For more information about Mr. Buck’s case, please click here.
To speak with Mr. Buck’s attorneys, prominent individuals testifying in favor of the Racial Justice Act, or other experts, please contact Laura Burstein at 202-626-6868 (o); 202-669-3411(c); or Laura.Burstein@squiresanders.com