Reprieve for man 'sentenced to death for being black'
With just hours to go before he was due to be killed by lethal injection, a convicted murderer from Texas has been granted a temporary reprieve so the US Supreme Court can investigate whether he was originally sentenced to death because he is black.
Duane Edward Buck had already eaten his final meal and was waiting to be taken to the execution chamber when news of the last-minute legal decision broke, shortly after 6pm on Thursday.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the inmate was praying when officers at the death row facility in Huntsville told him the news. Buck responded: "God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment, and I feel good."
The relatively rare intervention, by the highest court in the US, places Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas and Republican Presidential hopeful, under the spotlight. Earlier this week, Perry refused to delay the controversial execution so it could be reviewed.
Buck, 48, was convicted of killing his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and another man, Kenneth Butler, in 1995. He drove to her house at night, armed with a rifle and shotgun, and high on drugs. Police found him trying to flee after the shooting. He was arrested after being identified by multiple witnesses. They included a third victim, Gardner's stepsister Phyllis Taylor, who was shot in the chest, but survived.
That Buck carried out the attack is not in dispute. No one is arguing that his murder conviction should be quashed, either. Instead, the legal controversy revolves around the subsequent sentencing hearing, at which a jury voted for him to be executed.
During the hearing, a psychologist called Walter Quijano contended that black or Hispanic men are more likely to re-offend if let out of prison than their white counterparts. The evidence was important, since defendants can only be put to death in Texas if the prosecution demonstrates that they represent a future threat to society. However, it also violated the US Constitution, which does not allow race to influence someone's treatment by the justice system.
In 2000, the state's then Attorney General, John Comyn, admitted that Mr Quijano's testimony was unconstitutional. He said that six cases in which it had led to defendants receiving a capital penalty – including that of Buck – should be reviewed.
Since then, all five of the other men have been granted re-trials (at which their original sentences were all upheld). However, Buck's request for a new hearing has been denied by a string of Texas courts. It has slowly become a cause célèbre. Even Ms Taylor, his surviving victim, supports him.
The US Supreme Court has now asked for further time to look at Buck's request. Once its justices have done that, they will either order a new sentencing trial or lift their temporary stay of execution and allow him to be executed.
"No one should be put to death based on the colour of his or her skin," said Kate Black, one of Buck's attorneys, yesterday.
"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."
Quite how the affair will impact on Governor Perry's presidential campaign remains to be seen. Last week, during a debate involving all the major Republican candidates, it was stated that Perry has signed off on the execution of 235 people during his 11 years in office, more than any other Governor. There followed the night's longest round of applause.
Death row in numbers
234 prisoners executed in Texas since Rick Perry became Governor in 2000
309 inmates on death row in Texas
10.6 average number of years people spend on death row before execution
7 the number of minutes it takes for the lethal injection to take effect
3,173 the number of people who were held on death row in the US in 2009
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