Friday is a day of reckoning for Duane Buck.
That’s the day the Supreme Court will determine whether to hear his appeal for a new sentencing hearing. Buck is on Death Row in Texas.
It is important to emphasize that he is not seeking a new trial. There’s no question of Buck’s guilt in the 1995 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, her friend, Kenneth Butler, and Buck’s stepsister, Phyllis Taylor. No, all he’s asking is to be re-sentenced for the crime.
Texas law says you can’t be sentenced to death unless a jury finds that you represent a future danger. In Buck’s case, psychologist Walter Quijano, a supposed expert testifying for the defense, no less, told jurors Buck represented just such a danger.
Because he is black.
If any of this rings a bell, it’s because I wrote about the case three years ago. If you read that column, you may recall that one of the researchers on whose writings Quijano based his testimony says his work supports no such conclusion. Indeed, Quijano’s claim was so outrageous that even Buck’s surviving victim and one of his prosecutors think he should get a new hearing. In 2000, Sen. John Cornyn, who was then Texas’ attorney general, conceded the state was wrong in allowing race to be used as a factor in sentencing.
Quijano had given similar testimony in six cases. The other five defendants got new hearings. Buck was denied, based on a flimsy legalism, namely that the offending testimony was first elicited by the defense.
People keep telling me I’m wrong to believe the justice system is riddled with racial bias.
And I keep being sickened by stories like this.
It’s worth noting that these predictions of future dangerousness are not exactly unerring. Texas Defender Services, a nonprofit law firm specializing in capital cases, studied the records of 155 Death Row inmates and found that only 5 percent went on to commit assaults serious enough to warrant more than a Band-Aid. In a place where you can get written up for saving a seat in the cafeteria, Buck has a clean disciplinary record dating back to 1998.
So Quijano’s testimony was racist and wrong.
Look, I don’t like the death penalty. But even if I did, I would want to be sure this severest of sanctions was imposed fairly. Plainly, it is not.
And the fact that it is not cannot help but undermine the credibility of the entire system. If we countenance bias at this extremity, what confidence can anyone have in the system’s fairness at any level, down to and including parking tickets?
The racism here is not subtle. To deny Buck a new sentencing hearing untainted by bizarre suppositions about the future danger he poses because of his skin color would shred even the pretense of equality before the law. So let us hope the Court does what it should.
Because, yes, Friday is a day of reckoning for Duane Buck. But it’s a day of reckoning for justice, too.