Just before 8pm on Thursday in a Huntsville Texas correctional facility, Duane Buck exclaimed, “Praise the Lord, God is worthy to be praised. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. I feel good.” Buck had already eaten his last meal and was to be taken to the death chamber for his execution by lethal injection in about four hours.
At 7:40 pm, the telephone rang – the Supreme Court had granted Buck a stay of execution. His defence attorneys were not appealing his conviction for murdering his ex-girlfriend Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler back in 1995; rather they were contesting his death penalty sentence. While up on the stand during the sentencing hearing, Psychologist Walter Quijano affirmed that because Buck was African American, there was a greater chance of him reoffending.
Buck’s defence team called on Governor Rick Perry, the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to grant their client clemency due to Quijano’s inaccurate and racist testimony. All three denied the stay and it fell to the Supreme Court to make the last minute call.
Support for Buck came from unlikely sources. One of the victims from the 1995 shooting, who survived, Phyllis Taylor, pleaded to the state parole board that Buck’s sentence be changed to life in prison, stating that she forgave him for her life-threatening injuries and for the murder of her stepbrother (Butler). Former Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin, who helped put Buck behind bars, also recommended the execution be stopped, so he could have a new sentencing hearing.
Buck’s case has been one of several examples that have prompted the question whether the Texas Criminal Justice System is tainted by discrimination. In 2000, then State Attorney General John Cornyn stated that injustice occurred in six court proceedings, including Buck’s, due to Psychologist Quijano’s supposed “expert” testimony on race. Up until Thursday, the other five death row inmates had already been through new sentencing trials, yet Buck had not. Buck’s defence team is now confident he will now have a new hearing.
Governor Perry, who is known as a firm supporter of capital punishment, was not in Texas leading up to Buck’s potential execution. He was away campaigning for the nomination of representing the Republicans in the next presidential election. In his 11 years as Governor, Texas has executed 235 murderers; Perry has granted a stay in four executions, although one of the inmates was later put to death.
In the United States, currently 34 states practice capital punishment. Since 1976, Texas has carried out the most executions at 474; this statistic is over four times the number of executions in Virginia, the next ranking state.