The Supreme Court made the rare decision to step in and order a stay of execution for Duane Edward Buck in Texas, hours before he was to die, because the jury sentencing him to death was told that Buck posed a greater threat to public safety because of his race.
The justices still must determine whether they will review the Buck case, so this stay may not last very long. But at a time when Rick Perry is running for President, it’s a significant reversal that could cause further scrutiny of the death penalty system in Texas.
“We are relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the obvious injustice of allowing a defendant’s race to factor into sentencing decisions,” his attorney, Kate Black, said in a statement.
“No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin,” she added.
Perry, his Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles either refused to hear the plea for clemency or recommended against it. But this is a serious constitutional issue. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an inmate whose death sentence was reversed because of a race-based appeal made in sentencing. John Cornyn was Attorney General at the time, and he listed six cases where prosecutors relied on race-based arguments in death penalty cases. Specifically, an expert witness testified that the African-American defendants had a greater propensity for “future dangerousness,” a consideration in Texas death penalty cases, solely because of their race. Of the six cases, five received a new sentencing hearing (those cases were pending in federal court; only Buck’s was in state court). But for some reason, Buck did not. One of the state prosecutors who worked on the case, who has now come forward to say that Buck should get a new trial, simply assumed that he already had one, based on the Cornyn order in 2000. It’s not Buck’s guilt or innocence that’s at issue, it’s this serious misconduct at trial by the prosecution.
State prosecutors won a lower court case arguing that Buck’s Constitutional rights were not violated, but his lawyers appealed up to the Supreme Court. And now they have a stay of execution while the justices review the case. This doesn’t even mean that Buck won’t still get death for the murders; in the other cases, the inmates were re-sentenced to death. But it does mean that he would get a new sentencing trial, because race-based appeals like this violate the federal Constitution.
Hanging over this is the extreme surety with which Perry touts the “very thoughtful, very clear process” for death sentencing in Texas. That’s obviously not true in this case, and hopefully this will force a reckoning from major media on other cases. Like Cameron Todd Willingham, perhaps.