Justices, give Duane Buck a second chance

Inmate on death row because he's black?
Inmate on death row because he's black?

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Story highlights

  • In 1997, an African-American man named Duane Buck was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Texas
  • Linda Geffin: Supreme Court should grant him a new sentence hearing and address racial bias in the criminal justice system

Linda Geffin was the second chair prosecutor in Duane Buck's case while an assistant district attorney in the Harris County District Attorney's Office. She subsequently held positions as senior assistant county attorney and chief of the Special Prosecutions Unit for Harris County Attorney's Office. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)Duane Buck was sentenced to death in Texas because he is black. I know his case well because I was one of his prosecutors. And as the US Supreme Court considers his appeal this October, I ask the court to remedy this racial bias.

I served the people of Harris County, Texas, for 25 years as a prosecutor, helping to remove offenders from our streets and to advocate for justice in our courts. Buck's case is the only one of thousands of cases I've handled and 150 jury trials I have tried in which I have called for a new sentencing hearing.
Linda Geffin
In 1997, Buck was prosecuted for capital murder in Houston. Under Texas law, the state must prove that a defendant constitutes a "future danger" to the public in order to secure a death sentence. At the sentencing hearing, Buck's attorneys introduced a now-discredited "expert" who asserted on cross-examination that Buck's race increased the probability that he would commit acts of violence in the future.
    The prosecutor who elicited that response reiterated the importance of this expert's opinion on future dangerousness during closing arguments, stating that the jury should rely on it to conclude that Buck was likely to be a "future danger." Buck's ineffective defense counsel did not object, and the jury returned a verdict of death.
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    What occurred in Buck's sentencing hearing is shocking and cannot stand, because it renders the resulting sentence of death reprehensible and biased. As prosecutors, our duty is to ensure, first and foremost, that justice is done. That is the keystone to guarantee the integrity of the criminal justice system. Should the integrity of the system fail, it is our duty to acknowledge it and work diligently to set it right.
    In Buck's case, first the system failed when he was represented by ineffective lawyers who incomprehensibly introduced a racially biased "expert" for the proceedings -- and then continued to poorly represent Buck during the appellate process.
    Second, the prosecution failed to provide a fair and just sentencing hearing, free from racial bias. This was recognized in 2000, when then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, after reviewing all of the cases in which this "expert" testified, stated that there were seven defendants whose capital sentencing proceedings were tainted by the racial bias of the same discredited "expert" and that they were all entitled to new and fair sentencing hearings.
    Cornyn said, "It is inappropriate for race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system." Buck was one of those seven defendants.
    And all of the defendants named by Cornyn received their new sentencing hearings -- all except Buck. Without reason or explanation, Texas broke its promise of a fair sentencing hearing. His death sentence, although tainted by racial bias, still stands.
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    Third, the criminal justice system failed to protect his constitutionally mandated right to a fair trial. Numerous studies show that the criminal justice system has treated African-American men, like Buck, more harshly. For example, from 1992 to 1999 -- during the time Buck was tried and sentenced to death -- the Harris County District Attorney's office was more than three times more likely to seek the death penalty against African-American defendants than it was to seek death against a similarly situated white defendant. And, compounding this systemic bias, Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to impose death on African-American defendants.
    Texas -- as well as the country at large-- has reached a tipping point. But we have been afforded a rare opportunity to right a past wrong. It is time to acknowledge the mistakes made in Buck's case and finally ensure that he receives justice.
    On October 5, as the US Supreme Court hears Buck v. Davis, the court will consider Buck's appeal of a Texas court's decision that his case was not "extraordinary" enough to merit review on its core issues.
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    Buck's case, however, is the most extraordinary death penalty case I have ever encountered. The issues his case raises require a complete and comprehensive review and demand a remedy free from bias.
    In short, Buck deserves a new sentencing hearing. Moreover, the public deserve to know that the racial bias that has permeated our criminal justice system will no longer be tolerated, and that we as a nation can and should strive for a fair and just future for all citizens.