Duane Buck currently sits on death row in a Texas jail cell partly because he is black. He has been held since his 1997 capital sentencing hearing, which was influenced by blatantly racist testimony. Trial prosecutors relied on erroneous “expert testimony” provided by psychologist Walter Quijano, who claimed African-Americans are more liable to commit future acts of violence than non-African-Americans.
Swayed by the misinformation, jury members accepted as truth Quijano’s claims. According to Texas law, a jury finding of “future dangerousness” is a prerequisite for a death sentence. Consequently, Buck was convicted in the fatal shootings of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler and issued the death penalty.
Three years after Buck’s trial, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, recognized seven Texas cases that unlawfully relied on Quijano’s faulty testimony correlating race and future threat to society, including Buck’s case. Cornyn acknowledged such “evidence” as wholly unconstitutional. He promised the Office of the Attorney General would seek new, unbiased sentencing hearings for the seven men identified. Each defendant has to date received a new hearing, with the exception of Duane Buck.
As recognized by former Texas Attorney General Cornyn, Buck should be entitled to a new sentencing hearing, free from racial bias.
Since arriving on death row, Buck has surrendered his life to Christ, and has repented for his actions of tragically taking the lives of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. He discovered redemption, and has since helped fellow inmates learn the love of Jesus. Buck partakes in daily personal prayer and Scripture reading. He also leads Bible study for the prisoners, and has worked to foster peaceful relationships between inmates and guards.
In his 15 years of imprisonment, Buck has never had a disciplinary write up. His behavior is held up as a model before other prisoners. The prison guards admit they will miss Buck when he is no longer there. A surviving shooting victim, Buck’s half-sister, has forgiven him, and does not want him to be executed. Each time they meet, Buck asks her how she is doing, and apologizes for the pain he brought into her life.
As we reflect on the injustice of Buck’s sentencing, we also validate the biblical call to remember those in jail. Clearly, race does not predispose any individual as a threat to society. If anything, we witness in the case of Duane Buck how God moves to transform us, despite how traumatic our past may be, despite how deplorable our upbringing. God redeems. And God uses. God is using Duane Buck in a position of ministry from a Texas jail cell. Sound familiar? God also used Joseph and Paul and Silas in times of imprisonment to show his saving power. God can and will bring good through injustice.
More than 100 members of clergy, elected officials, civil rights leaders, former prosecutors and judges, American Bar Association presidents, and a former Texas governor agree that Buck deserves a new and fair sentencing hearing. One of Buck’s trial prosecutors, former Assistant District Attorney of Harris County Linda Geffin, urged the state of Texas to reexamine the hearing, stating “No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race.”
As followers of Jesus, we agree that “the Lord hates dishonest scales.” The scales of justice were definitely out of balance in the sentencing of Duane Buck. Justice was not blind, but all too aware of the color of the defendant’s skin. This is an injustice that can and should be corrected. All it demands is a fair hearing that is long overdue.