Yesterday, the Supreme Court, Washington, had to confront the issue of racism when reviewing a 20-year-old death penalty case involving a black defendant whose race was given as a reason for considering him a danger to society. The case continues today.
20 years ago, on May 5, 1997, Duane Buck (left) was convicted of the capital murders of shooting Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler whilst under the influence of drugs in 1995, with the argument of him being a black man making him a danger to society, thus sending him onto death row as punishment.
His case has come forward to Washington Supreme Court, amid an intense national debate over racism in law enforcement after the current wave of American police killing black suspects.
Buck’s case highlights the question over racial prejudice in the US judicial system, with the Supreme Court providing a high profile forum for arguments over the way cases involving black defendants are treated.
There is no question about Buck’s guilt in the brutal 1995 slaying of his former lover and the man he found her with. But the courts challenge, centers not on the ultimate punishment itself, but on how the jury decided on the death penalty in Buck’s case.
“What this case is really about,” said Sam Pital, a legal expert, “is whether or not the court is going to permit Texas to pursue an execution where the capital sentencing proceeding was fundamentally tainted by so-called expert testimony that the defendant, Mr Duane Buck, was more deserving of a death sentence because he is black.”
Under Texas law, a person cannot be condemned to death unless the prosecutor proves that he or she poses a future danger to society.
Today, Buck has an impressive defence team fighting for justice, including lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the nation’s leading black civil rights group.
Back in 1997 and at the time of his conviction, Buck was represented by two court-appointed lawyers, one of whom, Jerry Guerinot, had a dismal record.
Guerinot had won zero acquittals over the course of his career and had no fewer than 20 clients who were sentenced to death.
During the sentencing hearing, Guerinot used a pseudo psychologist named Walter Quijano as an expert witness. Quijano told the court Buck presented a higher risk of recidivism because he was black.
Buck’s defenders say the racist assumption contained in Quijano’s assertion tainted the jury, violating the defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial by an impartial jury.
This case along with the case of Bobby J. Moore (another death row inmate from Texas prison) has forced the American legal system to look at the punishment of the death penalty and its effectiveness more closely.
“The Supreme Court cases this fall are addressing the brokenness of the judicial system,” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilising Network to End the Death Penalty.
She added that these cases are highlighting the most troubling aspect of the death penalty, with is disproportionately and unfairly used on vulnerable populations.
Buck vs Stephens will be argued before the court on October 5, with his guilt or innocence not at stake; but whether he was given a fair sentence, based on the discrimination against his colour skin.