New Study Finds Significant Racial Bias in Harris County’s Death Penalty System

New research released today in an appeal filed by Texas death row inmate Duane Buck shows that at the time of Mr. Buck’s case, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was over three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African American defendants like Mr. Buck.  The research also shows that Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to impose death sentences on African American defendants in cases like Mr. Buck’s.

In 1997, Mr. Buck was convicted of fatally shooting Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. During his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor elicited testimony from Dr. Walter Quijano before the jury in which he indicated that African Americans, like Mr. Buck, are more likely to commit future acts of violence. Under Texas’ death penalty statute, prosecutors must demonstrate a defendant’s “future dangerousness” and juries may impose a death sentence only if they find that the defendant poses such a future danger. In her closing argument at Mr. Buck’s sentencing, the prosecutor urged the jury to impose a death sentence and, in doing so, relied on Dr. Quijano’s testimony that Mr. Buck would be dangerous in the future.[1] The jury followed the prosecutor’s recommendation:  it found that Mr. Buck posed a future danger and sentenced him to death.

Three years after Mr. Buck’s capital trial, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn identified seven cases in which the State of Texas impermissibly relied on Dr. Quijano’s testimony linking the race of defendants to future dangerousness. One of those cases was Mr. Buck’s. The Attorney General acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was wholly unacceptable and promised that the Attorney General’s Office would seek new, fair sentencing hearings for these seven men, including Mr. Buck.

Each of the individuals identified by the Attorney General as deserving a new sentencing hearing has now received one — except for Duane Buck.

The petition filed today by Mr. Buck challenges his death sentence as “an unconstitutional product of racial discrimination” and asks the court to grant him a new, fair sentencing hearing that is free from racially-biased testimony.

Read a press release issued today  on behalf of Mr. Buck’s attorneys, including Christina Swarns of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Kathryn Kase of Texas Defender Service, and Kate Black.

Read more about the new study by University of Maryland Professor Ray Paternoster, which finds racial bias in Harris County’s death penalty system.
More information about Mr. Buck’s case can be found at http://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/duane-buck-sentenced-death-because-he-black.


[1] “You heard from Dr. Quijano, who had a lot of experience in the Texas Department of Corrections, who told you that there was a probability that the man would commit future acts of violence.” Source: State’s Closing Argument, Cause No. 699684, Reporter’s Record, Volume 28, p. 260 (1997).