Updated Friday, Sept. 16, 11:55AM
Harris County prosecutor Linda Geffin was working late last week when she took a break and saw a Facebook post from a Texas death row attorney whose client, Duane Buck, faced imminent execution. Geffin had been part of the team that helped send Buck to death row; it was the only capital case she’d ever worked on, and as she recalls, it “left a big impression on me.” More than a decade had passed since the case, so she decided to reread the court transcripts, including a hundred or so pages of testimony from state psychologist Walter Quijano. Then she came across this passage:
Q. You have determined that the sex factor, that a male is more violent than a female because that’s just the way it is, and that the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?
Geffin thought, “That’s pretty clearly inappropriate, not to mention morally and ethically wrong.” Indeed, Buck’s attorney was trying to save his life based on his unequal treatment on the basis of race. On September 9, Geffin wrote a letter to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles calling for Buck’s execution to be halted. “No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race,” she wrote.
On Tuesday, September 13, the Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Buck’s appeals for clemency. He is now scheduled to die on Thursday, September 15 unless Perry grants him a thirty-day reprieve. It will be the 236th execution overseen by Perry during his tenure as governor.
Buck was one of seven prisoners on Texas death row whose cases were addressed in 2000 by then—Texas Attorney General John Cornyn. Now a US Senator, Cornyn announced that he would not contest the appeals of Buck and six other prisoners—even though their guilt was not in doubt—because race had been used as a factor to determine their criminality. The same psychologist, Walter Quijano, had testified during the sentencing phase of all the trials, repeatedly saying that the fact that they were African-American or Hispanic increased the likelihood of them being dangerous in the future. In a capital punishment case, this tends to prompt jurors to choose a death sentence over life in prison. By acknowledging the testimony was “inappropriate,” Cornyn said his goal was “to assure the people of Texas that our criminal justice system is fairly administered.”
All but one of these men have since had their cases re-examined. For procedural reasons, Buck’s case fell through the cracks. Convicted of a 1995 double murder, by the time his appeal reached federal court, a new state attorney general refused to allow his death sentence to be reviewed.
Anyone with a basic familiarity with the tough-on-crime mentality that dominates Texas politics knows Cornyn’s actions in 2000—supported by then Gov. George W. Bush—were bold and unusual. The chorus of voices now calling for Perry to take action are also striking. Aside from Linda Geffin, the surviving victim of Buck’s attack, Phyllis Taylor, has been vocal in opposing his execution, saying it would only “add to her pain.” Taylor grew up in Houston in the same family as Buck and, despite not being genetically related, they call each other sister and brother. Days after he shot her, Buck called Taylor from jail to apologize, saying he could not believe what he had done and that he had been high on drugs. Taylor forgave him, and became on opponent of the death penalty. “If a person can watch another person die and have happiness in their heart, there is something wrong with that particular person,” she says.
On Tuesday Taylor visited Buck on death row, where they prayed together for the families of the people he killed and prayed that the governor would grant him a reprieve. “I feel that if you’re going to punish someone for what they did, you should at least give them a fair trial,” says Taylor. On that account, she and Perry should be on the same page. “When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required,” Perry said at the GOP debate on September 7. If he wants to disprove those who doubt him, he can act before 6 pm Thursday, and spare the life of a man who was sentenced to die based on the color of his skin.
After a dramatic wait of more than two hours, Duane Buck got word last night that his life would be spared, for now. Prison officials informed him that the US Supreme Court had agreed to review his lawyers’ claims that race played an improper role in his sentencing. Buck was never taken into the death chamber, where he would have been strapped to the gurney to await lethal injection.
"God’s mercy triumphs over judgment, and I feel good,’" Buck said, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.
Outside the prison dozens of Buck’s family members gathered to await the news of high court’s decision. Buck has 22 siblings, who came along with their husbands and wives, along with nieces and nephews. Many of them wore matching t-shirts with a photo of Buck smiling widely during a prison visit. By the end of the night, the family members wore matching smiles.
The Supreme Court’s decision was just one paragraph long. It explained that the execution had been stopped in order to look into the testimony in which a psychologist claimed Buck could be a future danger to society because he was black. (see story below for details). Bucks’ conviction for the 1995 murder of two people in Houston has never been in dispute, and if the constitutionality of his death sentence is upheld, he could still be executed.
"No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin" said Kate Black, one of Buck’s defense attorneys, after the court issued its decision. "We are confident that the court will agree that our client is entitled to a fair sentencing hearing that is untainted by considerations of his race."
Homepage image courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice