The United States Supreme Court stayed the September 15, 2011, execution of Duane Buck, whom Texas planned to execute despite its earlier admission that racially discriminatory testimony introduced at trial requires a new sentencing hearing.
In Texas, to obtain a death sentence, the State has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a probability the defendant would commit violent criminal acts in the future.
At Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing trial, an expert psychologist testified that because Mr. Buck is an African American, he is more likely to commit acts of violence in the future.
During closing argument, the prosecutor urged the jury to rely on this expert’s testimony to find that Mr. Buck would be a future danger. The jury found that Mr. Buck would be a future danger, and he was sentenced to death.
In 2000, while Mr. Buck’s case was on appeal in state court, the United States Supreme Court granted review in Saldano v. Texas, where the same psychologist had testified during Mr. Saldano’s sentencing trial that a person’s race or ethnicity increases the likelihood of future dangerousness.
In Mr. Saldano’s case, the State of Texas conceded that the death sentence had been obtained in violation of the law against using race as a factor in sentencing a person to death. The Texas attorney general identified six cases like Mr. Saldano’s, where Texas prosecutors illegally relied on the defendant’s race to persuade jurors to impose the death penalty, and promised those defendants would get a new sentencing hearing.
Mr. Buck’s case was one of those six cases, but a new Texas Attorney General was in office by the time his case reached federal court. Unlike in the other five cases, the State contested that Mr. Buck was entitled to a new sentencing trial, and the lower courts refused to reverse his sentence.
Staying Mr. Buck’s execution gives the Supreme Court time to determine if it will review the case and address whether the law allows the government to rely on the defendant’s race to obtain a death sentence.