Racial Bias Got Duane Buck the Death Sentence; the Supreme Court Can Fix It

Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 based on bogus testimony that classified him as a future threat because he is black. 

Duane Buck in 2011
Duane Buck in 2011 Courtesy of Attorneys for Duane Buck

The perceived criminality and dangerousness of black men in the United States has a long and storied history.

Black men are killed, become hashtags, and their names become etched into an American lexicon of atrocities against blackness.

Terence Crutcher.

Philando Castile.

John Crawford III.

Duane Buck could be next.

“Nobody in this room is unaware of the American stereotype of African-American men as being inclined to be dangerous. It is a stereotype that is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. It’s something that we fight against every day. The place where that stereotype does its most damage is in the criminal-justice system,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told a group of reporters at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., last week.

Ifill was referring to Buck, who has been, quite literally, sentenced to death because of his race. His case, in a sense, starkly relates to the context of the national conversation surrounding the systemic killing of black men.

The Supreme Court of the United States is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Buck’s case (Buck v. Davis) on Wednesday. Justices will have the opportunity to decide whether or not Buck’s sentencing—tainted by blatant racial bias—meets the criteria to warrant a reopening of judgment and thus set him up for new and fair sentencing.

The series of gross injustices against Buck started in 1997 during the sentencing phase of his trial. He was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and another man. That is not up for question. He is guilty.

However, during the sentencing phase of his trial, his own defense team inexplicably called on “expert” witness Dr. Walter Qujiano, who testified that Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black.

This point is important because in the state of Texas, the death sentence is only an option if the jury finds unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual would continue to commit acts of violence.

When Buck’s defense team introduced the bogus, racist testimony, it freed up room for the prosecution to repeat the testimony during cross-examination, which prosecutors did, urging the jury to consider the “evidence.” After two days of grueling deliberation, the jury decided to sentence Buck to death.

The horror did not stop there. Buck tried to challenge his sentencing in a state habeas corpus proceeding, which is kind of like an appellate proceeding, and for which he got new, court-appointed counsel. That counsel, however, was not any more effective than his first round of lawyers, Buck’s current attorneys say, making no mention of Quijano’s problematic testimony or the ineffective assistance of trial counsel with which Buck grappled.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the issue was even brought up, but by then, under Texas law, it was too late, with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal stating that it did not have to consider the problematic testimony that resulted in Buck’s death sentence because the matter was not raised in the proper way.