The U.S. Supreme Court stopped Texas officials Thursday evening from executing a Houston murderer who was sentenced to die after jurors were told he posed a greater danger to public safety because he is black.
The justices acted on an emergency appeal after Texas Gov. Rick Perry and state judges refused to intervene.
The high court’s brief order said the “stay of execution of sentence of death … is granted” while the justices decide whether to review the case of Duane Edward Buck.
“Praise the Lord!” Buck told Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, according to the Associated Press. “God is worthy to be praised. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. I feel good.”
Buck was praying in his cell when told of the decision, Clark said.
“We are relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the obvious injustice of allowing a defendant’s race to factor into sentencing decisions,” his attorney, Kate Black, said in a statement.
“No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin,” she added.
The reprieve came nearly two hours into a six-hour window when Buck could have been executed, but state officials did not act while his emergency appeal was pending.
Buck, a 48-year-old auto mechanic, was sentenced to die for the fatal 1995 shootings of an ex-girlfriend and a man. His attorneys did not dispute his guilt but argued that prosecutors should not have used his race to argue for a death sentence.
On Tuesday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended against clemency.
Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst did not respond to pleas urging them to grant Buck a 30-day reprieve. Perry, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, was campaigning in Iowa on Thursday, leaving Dewhurst to preside over the execution. After the stay was issued, Dewhurst’s office said he would have no comment. A Perry spokeswoman in Austin said, “This is a matter before the courts.”
In Buck’s emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, his attorneys said, “Racial bias mars the integrity of the judicial system. An execution under these circumstances will do irreparable harm to the criminal justice system in general.”
The dispute dates back to 2000, when then-Texas Atty. Gen. John Cornyn acknowledged to the Supreme Court that prosecutors had violated the Constitution by relying on race-based arguments in six death penalty cases. Buck’s case was one of them, and he was the only one who did not receive a new sentencing hearing.
The other cases had been pending in federal court, while Buck’s was in state court. Later, after Cornyn was elected to the U.S. Senate and a new attorney general took over, state prosecutors argued that Buck’s rights were not violated, and they won in the lower courts.
Last week, Perry said during a GOP presidential debate that he “never struggled” over the death penalty because “the state of Texas has a very thoughtful, very clear process in place.” During Perry’s 11 years in office, the state has carried out 235 executions.
The sentencing dispute arose because of an unusual provision in Texas’ death penalty law. Jurors were required to consider whether a convicted murderer would pose a future danger if he were sentenced to life in prison rather than death. In a series of cases, Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist, testified that blacks posed a greater risk of “future dangerousness” than whites.
Buck’s trial took place in 1997. During the sentencing phase, Quijano testified for the defense that Buck was not likely to be dangerous because he had no previous history of violence. But when a prosecutor asked about the “race factor,” the psychologist said blacks posed more of a danger than whites. Prosecutors cited this testimony in their closing argument, and the jury voted for the death penalty.
In June 2000, when a Texas inmate appealed this issue to the Supreme Court, the justices reversed his death sentence “in light of the confession of error” by the state’s attorneys. In response, Cornyn pledged to allow new hearings for the other defendants as well. “It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system,” he said.
The other death row inmates were resentenced to death after the new hearings.
Last week, a Harris County prosecutor who had worked on Buck’s case wrote to Perry and state attorneys arguing that Buck get a new hearing.
“I felt compelled to step forward,” wrote Linda Geffin, because of the “improper injection of race in the sentencing hearing in Mr. Buck’s case.” She said she had assumed, based on Cornyn’s pledge, that Buck had received a new sentencing hearing.
Texas’ death penalty decisions have come before the high court before.
Last year, the court intervened in the last hour to stop the execution of an inmate who said he was innocent and sought DNA testing of a bloody knife and other items found at the crime scene.
Hank Skinner was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two adult sons on New Year’s Eve 1993.
Texas prosecutors and judges had ruled that he had no right to seek the DNA testing because his lawyer did not seek it during his trial.
The high court ruled for Skinner this March, saying he had a right under federal law to have the DNA evidence tested. Since then, however, the county district attorney has continued to oppose the DNA testing, and state officials have set a new execution date in November.
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Robert Lee, Texas, contributed to this report.