Late Thursday night, as death row inmate and convicted murderer Duane Buck was preparing to die, the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in and halted his scheduled execution.
What’s interesting about this case is that it is not about guilt or innocence. It’s about his sentence.
As the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said, “he shot and killed [Debra} Gardner in view of her children. Buck has never contended that he was not the shooter.”
His lawyers argue that he should not be put to death because Texas relied on improper racial testimony that was a basis for his death sentence.
The Court granted Buck a stay until at least Sept. 26 when it will meet behind closed doors and consider taking up the case.
“The Buck case is unusual in that the Supreme Court intervened at a late hour and on an issue independent of whether Buck was innocent or guilty, ” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes the death penalty. ”This was a claim about racial bias, and that sort of claim getting relief at the last hour is very unusual.”
It took five justices to step in and grant the temporary stay of the execution. It will take four to decide whether to take up the case.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was speaking Thursday night at an event in San Francisco at the University of California Hastings. According to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle, she talked broadly about the death penalty.
“I would probably go back to the day when the Supreme Court said the death penalty could not be administered with an even hand, but that’s not likely to be an opportunity for me,” Ginsburg said.
She was referring to a 1972 decision that led to a moratorium on the death penalty until it was reinstated in a 1976.
According to the account, Ginsburg called executions a ”a dreadful part of the business.”
At Buck’s trial, psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano testified that Buck was African American and his race increased the likelihood of his being dangerous in the future.
“You have determined,” a prosecutor asked Quijano during cross examination ”the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?”
“Yes,” the doctor said, according to court transcripts. .
Buck’s lawyers also pointed out that the former Texas Attorney General (and now Senator) John Cornyn had conceded error in Buck’s case and several other cases. A day before his scheduled execution, Buck’s lawyers wrote Governor Perry asking for a reprieve.
In the letter the lawyers said that Cornyn had made a “solemn guarantee” that death sentences affected by testimony that took race into consideration would not be carried out.
They argued that Texas “upheld its promise” regarding some cases but not Buck’s.
The lower court rejecting Buck’s claim distinguished his case from the others that received a new sentencing trial by saying that it was Buck’s own lawyers who had called Quijano to the stand. The court also questioned the timing of Buck’s appeal.
Following the Supreme Court’s action staying the execution, Lucy Nahsed, Gov. Perry’s deputy press secretary, released a statement declining comment, saying, “This is a matter before the courts.”
Perry was asked about the court decision during a tour of a Coca-Cola plant in Iowa.
“I won’t venture a guess what the Supreme Court will decide on this one, but it will go forward and justice will be served,” Perry said, according to Politico.