‘Race’ in case stains Texas justice system

Posted Saturday, Jul. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Texas has so many stains on its criminal justice system that there is no societal detergent that could ever remove them all.

But there is one glaring spot of injustice that we can do something about, if only the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has the will.

The case of Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death based on racially biased testimony, is before the state’s highest criminal court on a habeas corpus petition asking for a new sentencing trial.

The petition ought to be granted.

No one is questioning Buck’s guilt in the 1995 murder of his ex-girl-friend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler.

A third person, Phyllis Taylor, was also shot during the crime.

But it is what happened at his trial in Houston in 1997 that is cause for alarm, something that the former Texas attorney general, now U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, acknowledged was unfair and impermissible.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, psychologist Walter Quijano answered “yes” when the prosecutor asked if “the race factor, black” increased the future danger from a defendant if he were ever released from prison.

In 2000, after the case of Victor Hugo Saldano was appealed to the Supreme Court, Cornyn found six other cases in Texas in which Quijano had offered his expert opinion that blacks and Hispanics were more likely to cause a future danger to society.

“The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone,” Cornyn said at the time. “I will continue to do everything I can to assure Texans of our commitment to an equitable criminal justice system.”

Of those six cases, all but Buck have been granted new sentencing trials. Harris County officials and the current attorney general have argued that Buck doesn’t deserve a new trial because his defense attorney called Quijano as a witness.

In two of the other cases Quijano also was the defense witness, called basically to talk about how blacks and Hispanics are over-represented in the state’s the criminal justice system.

By the way, the five who received new sentencing trials were given the death penalty again.

Buck’s attorneys are hopeful that another trial will not result in the death sentence for him for several reasons, including the fact that he had no prior violent felony convictions.

In addition, as they point out in the habeas corpus petition, there is a long list of mitigating issues that were not introduced in Buck’s first trial.

Some of the mitigating factors are his mother’s early death; a strained relationship with his violent, abusive alcoholic father; his depression and debilitating addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine; and his pervasive undiagnosed developmental disorder.

Laura Burstein, spokeswoman for his attorney, says “Buck’s exemplary behavior while in prison demonstrates the falsity of the racially biased future dangerousness evidence used in his case.

“As his prison record indicates, Mr. Buck has had not a single disciplinary write-up during his 14 years in prison — even in a system where inmates are regularly written up for such minor ‘offenses’ as having too many stamps and refusing to shave.

“Mr. Buck has served as a role model for his fellow prisoners and has facilitated a more peaceful relationship between prisoners and guards.”

Former Gov. Mark White, who presided over 19 executions while he was in office, joined 100 other elected officials, clergy, civil rights leaders and legal professionals in signing a statement calling for a new sentencing trial for Buck.

Also signing the statement was the surviving victim in the case, Phyllis Taylor, whose feeling ought to count for something in this matter.

“I have forgiven Duane and could not bear to see him executed,” she said in a statement. “I pray that his life be spared.”

Let us pray that the Court of Criminal Appeals will act to remove this horrible stain on justice.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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