Racial Bias in Texas Death Penalty Case Gaining Attention


Former Governor and Texas Attorney General Mark White is among the more than 100 prominent people nationwide who are calling for a new, fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck.

At Duane Buck’s 1997 capital sentencing hearing in Harris County (Houston), Texas, the trial prosecutor elicited testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a future danger to society because he is Black. As United States Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, wrote in dissent from the Court’s refusal to review Mr. Buck’s case in November 2011, the prosecutor asked the expert “a question specifically designed to persuade the jury that Buck’s race made him more dangerous and that, in part on this basis, he should be sentenced to death.” The prosecutor relied on this testimony in arguing in favor of a death sentence. The jury followed the prosecutor’s recommendation and Mr. Buck was sentenced to death.

In 2000, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a United States Senator, identified seven cases in which the State of Texas impermissibly relied on testimony linking the race of defendants to future dangerousness, acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was unacceptable, and promised that the attorney general’s office would seek sentencing hearings for these seven men, including Mr. Buck. Each of these individuals has now received a new sentencing hearing – except for Duane Buck.

At the time of Mr. Buck’s trial, the Harris County district attorney’s office was more than three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African American defendants like Mr. Buck than against similarly situated whites, a recently released study found, and Harris County juries were twice as likely to impose death sentences on African-Americans like Mr. Buck.

Dozens of elected officials, former judges and prosecutors, civil rights and faith leaders, and past presidents of the American Bar Association, have asked the Harris County district attorney’s office to agree to a new sentencing hearing free of racial discrimination for Mr. Buck. One of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin, has also urged the State to give Mr. Buck a new sentencing hearing because “[n]o individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race.” Ms. Geffin started an online petition that more than 50,000 people have signed so far. The surviving victim, Phyllis Taylor, has forgiven Mr. Buck and does not want to see him executed.