Duane Buck Resentenced to Life After Supreme Court Reversed Racially-Biased Death SentenceOctober 11, 2017

Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death in Texas after an expert testified that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black, was resentenced to life in prison last week.

In February, the United States Supreme Court reversed Mr. Buck's death sentence, holding that his constitutional right to counsel was violated when his attorneys gave the jury expert evidence that "said, in effect, that the color of Buck's skin made him more deserving of execution."

The Court found that the expert's testimony "appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as 'violence prone,'" and it prejudiced Mr. Buck by enabling jurors to "mak[e] a decision on life or death on the basis of race."

That Mr. Buck "may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race," the Court continued, "is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are." 

The Court went on to say that "[r]elying on race to impose a criminal sanction 'poisons public confidence'" in the judicial system and "injures not just the defendant, but 'the law as an institution, . . . the community at large, and . . . the democratic ideal reflected in the processes of our courts.'"

On October 3, after 20 years on death row, Mr. Buck entered into a plea agreement with Harris County prosecutors that converted his death sentence to life.  District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement that she decided not to seek the death penalty again because "a Harris County jury would likely not return another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been tainted by the indelible specter of race."

The prosecution nonetheless required Mr. Buck, now 54 years old, to plead guilty to two new counts of attempted murder that add 60 years to his life sentence in hopes of foreclosing the possibility of release when he becomes eligible for parole in 2035.  Texas law did not authorize life imprisonment without parole sentences at the time of his crime.

Ms. Ogg said the plea deal "can close a chapter in the history of our courts, in that they will never again hear that race is relevant to criminal justice or to the determination of whether a man will live or die. Race is not and never has been evidence."

Mr. Buck's case is the third death penalty case in Houston resolved with a plea agreement for a life sentence after a successful appeal instead of a retrial.