The color of your skin shouldn’t determine whether you live or die. But that is precisely the case for Duane Buck, a Texas man facing execution. His case is before the Supreme Court this month.
Earlier this month, the nation’s highest court allowed the execution of another African-American man, Kenneth Fults, to take place in Georgia despite the fact that his own defense lawyer referred to him as “n--” and fell asleep in court. On top of that, one of the jurors in the case, Thomas Buffington said this: “I don’t know if he ever killed anybody, but that n-- got just what should have happened.” Buffington went on to say that the death penalty is “what that n-- deserved.”
Kenneth Fults was executed on April 12.
Now the Supreme Court will consider the case of Duane Buck. It’s the next big test of whether the words inscribed on the front of the Supreme Court — “Equal Justice Under the Law” — are a mirage. Mr. Buck’s guilt is not in question. What is in question is whether he should be executed for what he did. And what is also in question is whether black people are more dangerous than white people.
In Texas, during the sentencing trial in capital cases, the “future dangerousness” of the defendant is considered as the jury determines whether someone should be executed. In Mr. Buck’s case, his own attorneys introduced testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a danger to society because he is black. That same psychologist, Walter Quijano, gave similar racially charged testimony in six other Texas cases that resulted in death sentences. All of those death sentences were thrown out and the defendants were given new sentencing hearings – except for Duane Buck who still faces execution.
It gets worse.
At the time of Buck’s trial, Harris County prosecutors were three times more likely to seek the death penalty for African-American defendants than for similar white defendants. During the same period, Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to sentence African-American defendants to death. Over the last five years, nearly 75 percent of all death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color.
Texas and Georgia (where Kenneth Fults was executed) are currently our deadliest states and have accounted for 10 of the 12 executions in 2016. Though Texas and Georgia have accounted for over 80 percent of the executions so far this year, they are only the eye of the storm.
The contemporary practice of the death penalty cannot be divorced from our history of slavery and racism. As Connecticut’s Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 2015, the court’s treatise made this point: “The 13 states that comprised the Confederacy have carried out more than 75 percent of the nation’s executions over the last four decades.”
To be blunt, the states where people were being lynched 100 years ago are precisely the states where people, and an inordinate percentage of people of color, are being executed today. To this day, one of the biggest predictors of who gets executed is the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant. We are not executing the worst of the worst but the poorest of the poor — and especially people of color.
The roots of the death penalty are sunk deep in the horrific history of lynching. As lynchings decreased, legal executions increased. Two-thirds of those executed in the 1930s were black. As African Americans fell to 22 percent of the South’s population by 1950, they made up 75 percent of the executions. And today — 2016 — even though African Americans make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population, 42 percent of death row is black, and 35 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black.
These stunning realities have created many new leaders in the movement for alternatives to the death penalty. Among those calling for a halt to executions are many conservative legislators and several governors who are for the death penalty in principle but not in practice because of the issues involving racial bias. Even some of the death penalty’s most vocal supporters, like Southern Baptist leaders Al Mohler and Richard Land, have publicly shared their deep concerns about racial bias in the system.
In light of these realities, Duane Buck’s request for a new sentencing hearing is a moral imperative. His case and the concerns it raises have brought together an eclectic array of unusual allies around the country. In addition to civil rights leaders, clergy, and elected officials, there are also prosecutors, judges, and a former Texas governor (Gov. Mark White) supporting Mr. Buck’s request for a fair sentencing hearing.
Also among the folks asking for justice for Mr. Buck is none other than one of the prosecutors during his trial, Linda Geffin. Her own commitment to justice would not allow her to be silent.
In the nearly two decades he has been in prison, Mr. Buck has been anything but “dangerous.” He has never been written up for a single violation. He has gained a reputation for being a mediator and reconciler, disarming hostilities on the inside even between guards and inmates. The warden has called him a light in the darkness and a blessing to the prison. He’s known as “Preacher Buck” because of the clear way his faith shapes him and compels him to care for others.
Since all this is happening in the heart of the Bible belt, it’s important to remember that the Bible itself gives us stories of murderers that were redeemed. Among the Bible’s most famous figures were three murderers saved by God’s grace — Moses, David, and Paul.
As a devout Christian, Preacher Buck has done everything he can to heal the wounds of what he did. One of the folks who can testify to that is Duane’s stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, who was critically injured during the crime. She is among the many voices saying that execution is not the solution.
I hope you will join me in calling for an end to the death penalty. But even if you don’t — even if you believe in the death penalty — I hope you will join me and hundreds of others in calling for a new, fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck.
Duane has made his last appeal to the United States Supreme Court. My hope and prayer is that the Supreme Court will fix this injustice once and for all. Let justice prevail.
No one should be killed because they are black.