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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Texas Execution Stayed Based on Race Testimony

By Manny Fernandez
The New York Times
Published September 16, 2011

In May 1997, a psychologist took the stand in a courtroom here during the sentencing hearing of Duane E. Buck, a black man found guilty of killing his former girlfriend and her friend.

The psychologist, Walter Quijano, had been called by the defense, and he testified that he did not believe Mr. Buck would be dangerous in the future. But on cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Dr. Quijano more detailed questions about the factors used to determine whether Mr. Buck might be a danger later in life.

“You have determined that the sex factor, that a male is more violent than a female because that’s just the way it is, and that the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons,” the prosecutor asked Dr. Quijano. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” the psychologist replied.

That statement, and how it was handled by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, helped spare Mr. Buck from the death chamber on Thursday, and has become the center of a case that has raised questions about the role of race in the Texas criminal justice system at a time when Gov. Rick Perry’s support of the death penalty has become a factor in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. Buck, 48, had been scheduled to be executed on Thursday evening, but the Supreme Court intervened, granting a temporary stay of execution pending a decision about whether it will review an appeal of his case. Mr. Buck’s lawyers had argued that his death sentence was based, at least in part, on his race, and that in carrying out his execution, the state would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination by state governments.

At Mr. Buck’s sentencing hearing in 1997, the Harris County prosecutor told the jury in her closing argument to rely on the psychologist’s expert testimony, telling the jury: “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.”

In 2000, while the case was on appeal, the state attorney general at the time, John Cornyn, made an unusual announcement, conceding error in Mr. Buck’s case and six others in which the government had relied on race as a factor in sentencing. Mr. Cornyn, now a United States senator, stated that if the lawyers for the defendants in those cases challenged the government’s reliance on race at sentencing, he would not object. All of those cases centered on testimony from Dr. Quijano, a former chief psychologist for the state prison system.

“The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone,” Mr. Cornyn said then.

Of the defendants, all of whom were on death row, Mr. Buck was the only one who had not been granted a new sentencing hearing. The others were later re-sentenced to death.

The efforts to stop Mr. Buck’s execution drew widespread support. Linda Geffin, a former assistant district attorney in Harris County who helped prosecute Mr. Buck, wrote a letter to state officials, including Mr. Perry, asking them to halt the execution, writing that it was regrettable that “any race-based considerations were placed before Mr. Buck’s jury.” In addition, a survivor of Mr. Buck’s attack, Phyllis Taylor, had urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor to halt the execution.

The entire article can be read here.