The U.S. criminal justice system is a reflection of the values and mores of the society it serves. Which is to say, racism is built into its bones. A new study, released today as part of an appeal filed in the case of death row inmate Duane Buck, offers but the latest evidence of that reality. In Harris County, Texas, juries and district attorneys mete out punishment that differs greatly depending on the race of the defendant. The study buttresses Buck’s argument that the death sentence he received in 1997 unconstitutional, and that his own case represents not just a one-time lapse of justice, but a systemic problem.
University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster found in an analysis (PDF) of 504 Harris County cases similar to Buck’s between 1992 and 1999, Harris County prosecutors were more than three times as likely to seek the death penalty when the defendant was black than in cases when the defendant was white. Juries, too, treated white and black defendants differently. In cases similar to Buck’s, juries demanded the death penalty 20 percent of the time for white defendants, but 40 percent of the time when defendants were black. Buck is black.
“We are all at risk when our justice system allows prosecutors and juries to exercise lethal discretion based on race,” Sherrilyn Ifill, Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.
Buck’s case has been a significant one in the fight to demand justice of a system, and society, where racial inequity is laced throughout. During his trial, when Buck was convicted for the shooting deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler, the prosecution cross-examined a psychologist named Walter Quijano who testified that Buck’s blackness made him more likely to be dangerous in the future. The prosecution, in its closing statements, urged the jury to rely on Quijano’s testimony.
In 2000 when Buck’s case was on appeal, Texas’ then-attorney general, John Cornyn, conceded that the state improperly built its case around Buck’s race. “The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone,” Mr. Cornyn said at the time.
In a new round of appeals filed today by his attorneys Kate Black, the Texas Defender Service’s Kathryn Kase and the NAACP’s Christina Swarns, Buck argues that his 1997 death sentence was unconstitutional because prosecutors violated his right to due process and equal protection under the law. Buck’s attorneys are trying again to hold off his execution, and it is Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson who will decide whether to pursue a new execution date. What Buck’s attorneys really want for him is a new, fair sentencing hearing.
This post has been updated since publication.