Twenty-seven evangelical Christian leaders across Texas and the United States are calling on Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson to allow a new, fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck. Mr. Buck is an African-American man who was condemned to death after his sentencing jury was told that he was likely to be a future danger because of his race. These evangelical Christian leaders oppose the setting of any execution date for Mr. Buck.
“We write to respectfully request that you support a new, fair sentencing hearing for death row prisoner Duane Buck,” the letter states. “Although opinions on the death penalty vary within each of our churches, we are strongly united in our view that no death sentence should be a product of racial discrimination, as it was in Mr. Buck’s case.”
Among the evangelical Christian leaders joining me in advocating for Mr. Buck include Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice; Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church; Hector Chiesa, president, Radio Vision Cristiana; Paul Basden and Jim Johnson, pastors of Preston Trail Community Church; Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia Houston; Robert Hunt, director of Global Theological Education at Southern Methodist University; David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University; and Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
Our plea comes in the wake of last week’s decision by a splintered Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to dismiss Mr. Buck’s appeal.
We join more than 100 civil rights leaders, faith leaders, elected officials, former prosecutors and judges, a former Texas governor, one of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors and a victim in the case who are also calling on Texas to keep its promise and give Mr. Buck a new, fair sentencing. In addition, more than 80,000 people have signed a Change.org petition supporting fair and colorblind justice for Duane Buck.
In our letter, we highlight Mr. Buck’s strong Christian faith as another reason for their support: “In addition to our concerns over racial bias in this case, we are moved by the way Christ has worked in Mr. Buck’s life and set in motion the process of redemption during his time in prison. His faith is now central to his life: he is not only committed to his own daily prayer and scripture reading, he has also led his fellow prisoners in a Bible study group he created called Christian Brothers.” The letter concludes, “We humbly call upon you and your office to allow Mr. Buck the new sentencing hearing free of racial bias that he was rightly promised.”
At Mr. Buck’s 1997 capital sentencing hearing in Harris County, the trial prosecutor elicited testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a future danger to society because he is African American. The prosecutor relied on this testimony to argue in favor of a death sentence. The jury accepted the prosecutor’s argument, declared Mr. Buck a future danger, and sentenced him to death. Three years later, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Sen.) John Cornyn acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was wholly unacceptable and promised that the Attorney General’s Office would seek new, fair sentencing hearings for seven identified defendants whose death sentences were secured through the use of such improper testimony, including Mr. Buck. The State kept its word in every case — except for Mr. Buck’s.
Mr. Buck was convicted of capital murder in Harris County for the shooting deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. A third person, Phyllis Taylor, was shot but survived. Due in part to her Christian faith, Ms. Taylor has forgiven Mr. Buck and does not wish to see him executed.
The U.S. Supreme Court spared Mr. Buck’s life before he was scheduled to be executed in September 2011. Two justices agreed that Mr. Buck’s death sentence required review because “our criminal justice system should not tolerate” a death sentence “marred by racial overtones.” Similarly, last week three Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges concluded that Mr. Buck’s case involves “a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment phase.” The case is now in the hands of state officials.
Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.
Here’s a video about the racial bias in Mr. Buck’s case: