At Duane Buck’s 1997 capital sentencing hearing in Harris County (Houston), Texas, Mr. Buck’s own appointed trial attorneys presented testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck was likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black. The trial prosecutor exploited trial counsel’s error and relied on this expert testimony to argue in favor of a death sentence.
In February 2017, the Supreme Court unequivocally condemned the injection of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing. In Buck v. Davis, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-2, declared that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for introducing the “toxin” of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing. In an Opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority of the Court 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.” As a result, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision denying Mr. Buck relief. He was removed from death row and resentenced to life in prison in October 2017.
Case Background and History
Mr. Buck’s death sentence is an unconstitutional product of racial discrimination. LDF presented argument to the United States Supreme Court on Mr. Buck’s behalf on October 5, 2016. You can click here to read the oral argument transcript, here to review the briefs LDF submitted to the Court and here to see the amicus briefs that were filed in support of Mr. Buck’s case.
More than 100 prominent individuals from Texas and throughout the country, including civil rights leaders, elected officials, clergy, former prosecutors and judges, past ABA presidents, and a former Texas governor, are calling for a new, fair sentencing for Duane Buck. Read a press release here. American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows also released a statement in support of a new sentencing hearing. Read the statement here. On April 16, 2013, several prominent Texans submitted testimony to the Texas House of Representatives Criminal Jurisprudence Committee 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. Mr. Buck’s case was cited as a clear example of how racial discrimination corrupts Texas’ death penalty system. Read a press release here.
The racial discrimination that infected Mr. Buck’s case did not occur in a vacuum. Harris County has a long history of racial discrimination in its administration of criminal justice. Approximately half the African American prisoners on Texas’ death row are from Harris County. The District Attorney at the time of Mr. Buck’s case admitted that prosecutors routinely struck black jurors from service. Another Harris County District Attorney resigned after racist emails he sent and received on his work computer were discovered. This and other evidence reveals that a longstanding culture of racial bias existed in the Harris County D.A.’s office.
A new study reveals that between 1992 and 1999 (a time period which includes Mr. Buck’s case), the Harris County D.A.’s Office was over three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African American defendants like Mr. Buck than against white defendants, and Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to impose death sentences on African American defendants like Mr. Buck. University of Maryland Professor Ray Paternoster, an expert with more than 35 years of experience in criminology, quantitative methods, and related fields, conducted the study. The results are corroborated by earlier comprehensive studies reflecting that at the time of Mr. Buck’s capital trial, the Harris County D.A.’s Office sought death for black defendants but did not seek death for similarly situated white defendants in cases like Mr. Buck’s.
Read a press release on the new research and habeas petition filing.
Read a fact sheet on this case.
In 1997, Mr. Buck was convicted of fatally shooting Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. During Mr. Buck’s sentencing hearing, the prosecutor elicited testimony from Dr. Walter Quijano before the jury indicating that African Americans, like Mr. Buck, are more likely to commit future acts of violence. Under Texas’ death penalty statute, prosecutors must demonstrate a defendant’s “future dangerousness” and juries may impose a death sentence only if they find that the defendant poses such a future danger. In her closing argument at Mr. Buck’s sentencing, the prosecutor urged the jury to impose a death sentence and, in doing so, relied on Dr. Quijano’s testimony that Mr. Buck would be dangerous in the future.1 The jury followed the prosecutor’s recommendation: it found that Mr. Buck posed a future danger and sentenced him to death.
Three years after Mr. Buck’s capital trial, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn identified seven cases in which the State of Texas impermissibly relied on Dr. Quijano’s testimony linking the race of defendants to future dangerousness. One of those cases was Mr. Buck’s. The Attorney General acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was wholly unacceptable and promised that the Attorney General’s Office would seek new, fair sentencing hearings for these seven men, including Mr. Buck (Read then-Texas Attorney General Cornyn’s press release.)
Each of the individuals identified by the Attorney General as deserving a new sentencing hearing has now received one – except for Duane Buck.
Over sixty elected officials, civil rights and faith leaders, and former prosecutors, including former Governor and Texas Attorney General Mark White, have asked the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to agree to a new, fair sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck where race is not improperly used as a justification for a death sentence.
One of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin, has also urged the State to give Mr. Buck a new sentencing hearing, stating that “No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race.”
The surviving victim, Phyllis Taylor, who is Mr. Buck’s half-sister, has forgiven him. She does not want to see him executed.
Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices agree that Mr. Buck’s death sentence requires review, because “our criminal justice system should not tolerate” a death sentence “marred by racial overtones.”
Mr. Buck’s exemplary behavior while in prison demonstrates the fallacy of Dr. Quijano’s racially-biased testimony about his future dangerousness. Duane Buck is not a threat to anyone. He has had not a single disciplinary write-up during his fourteen years in prison – even though he is incarcerated in a system where prisoners are regularly punished for such minor “offenses” as having too many stamps or refusing to shave. Mr. Buck also serves as a role model for his fellow prisoners and has facilitated a more peaceful relationship between inmates and guards.
Mr. Buck is extremely remorseful and takes responsibility for his actions that led to the tragic deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler.
It is clear that Mr. Buck deserves a new sentencing hearing. Not only did the state improperly inject racial bias into the proceedings, Mr. Buck’s defense counsel at trial failed to investigate, develop and present significant available evidence that would have supported a life verdict. Compounding this problem, Mr. Buck’s initial state habeas corpus attorney failed to expose his trial counsel’s ineffectiveness.
Specifically, Mr. Buck’s trial counsel failed to inform the sentencing jury that Mr. Buck endured a traumatic life history, surviving severe and regular beatings from his father who was a violent alcoholic; exposure to alcohol starting at just five years old; exposure to toxic substances from working in an auto shop from childhood through adulthood; the traumatic death of his mother when he was 11 years old; and because he grew up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, an area that was plagued by drug-related violence, Mr. Buck survived numerous life-threatening incidents as a young person, including almost being stabbed with a machete, having a machine gun placed next to his head, and being shot in the leg.
Texas’s highest legal officer admitted constitutional error in Mr. Buck’s case and promised to take corrective action to afford him a new, fair sentencing hearing in which race would not be a factor. In 2000, then-Attorney General Cornyn correctly stated, “it is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system. The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone.”
The six other defendants whose capital proceedings were infected with racial prejudice by the prosecution’s reliance on Dr. Quijano’s testimony have been given new sentencing hearings. Texas should grant Mr. Buck a new sentencing hearing that is free from racial discrimination.
1 “You heard from Dr. Quijano, who had a lot of experience in the Texas Department of Corrections, who told you that there was a probability that the man would commit future acts of violence.” Source: State’s Closing Argument, Cause No. 699684, Reporter’s Record, Volume 28, p. 260 (1997).