By Alan Bean
It doesn’t get any closer than this. Two hours after the State of Texas legally could have executed Duane Buck, the US Supreme Court issued a stay. It has long been asserted that racial bias factored inappropriately in Buck’s death sentence. A psychologist answered in the affirmative when asked if the fact that Buck is black made it more likely that he would someday commit another act of violence.
Unlike the case of Troy Davis, Buck’s guilt has never been in dispute. But would the jury have been more likely to sentence the defendant to life in prison if they hadn’t been led to believe that, being black, he would likely kill again.
As a statistical matter, the psychologist was right: black males are considerably more likely, as a group, to commit acts of violence than white males. But race, per se, has nothing to do with it. In the post Civil War South, white males were far more likely to commit murder than black males. Buck’s blackness did not predispose him to violent behavior– and that is the only relevant issue for a jury to consider.
The racially biased testimony of the expert witness, in this and five other cases, deeply concerned John Cornyn when he was Texas Attorney General, and it clearly bothered the Supreme Court as well. There are no guarantees that they will call for a new sentencing hearing, of course, but at least the matter will receive careful review.
Duane Buck’s surviving victim has forgiven him and has asked the State of Texas to take the death penalty off the table.
Meanwhile, the family of James Anderson, the black man who was intentionally run over by Deryl Dedmon Jr., a young white man, has asked the Hinds County DA not to seek the death penalty. The family says it opposes the death penalty on religious grounds and because, historically, capital punishment has been unjustly employed against black men accused of assaulting or insulting white victims.
James Anderson’s family has also sued seven young people involved in an alleged assault on Anderson prior to the murder for wrongful death. Most of the defendants in this suit have not been arrested although photographic evidence suggests that they were involved in the assault at least peripherally.
Taken together, the cases of Duane Buck, Troy Davis, and Deryl Dedmon have focused the nation’s attention on the fairness of the death penalty to a greater extent than anything we have seen in decades.
By Mark Memmott
Duane Buck, “a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago was at least temporarily spared from lethal injection” on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to “his lawyers’ claims that race played an improper role in his sentencing,” The Associated Press writes.
As the wire service adds:
“Buck was sentenced to death for the fatal shootings of his ex-girlfriend and a man in her apartment in July 1995. His attorneys had asked both the Supreme Court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to halt the execution because of a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence. Buck’s guilt is not being questioned, but his lawyers contend the testimony unfairly influenced the jury and Buck should receive a new sentencing hearing.”
Wednesday on All Things Considered, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News said the issue in the Buck case has become “are we executing somebody not because he is guilty, but is the sentence delivered because he is black?”
“Last-minute” is actually an understatement. As the AP notes, the execution was halted “two hours into a six-hour window when [Buck] could have been taken to the death chamber. Texas officials, however, did not move forward with the punishment while legal issues were pending.” The Houston Chronicle says Buck “was waiting in a holding cell next to the state’s death chamber” when word came that the execution was on hold.
The order to halt the execution came down around 7:30 p.m. ET.
Buck, the Chronicle writes, “was sentenced to die for the July 1995 shooting deaths of his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler. Buck also shot his sister, Phyllis Taylor, in the chest at point-blank range, but the woman recovered and later became an advocate for saving his life.”
Perry, now a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has been in office for 235 executions in the state. On All Things Considered, Slater noted that “in Texas, if you are governor and you look like you want to offer a reprieve or to delay, you look soft on crime. That is a problem.”
Meanwhile, a pending execution in Georgia is getting attention around the world because supporters say death row inmate Troy Davis is innocent in the murder of an off-duty police officer.