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How a Texas death penalty case got to the US Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court will look at whether the death sentence of Duane Buck, meted out in Texas, may have been tainted by jurors' considerations of race. The court stayed his execution Thursday.

By Staff writer / September 16, 2011

The US Supreme Court has stopped the scheduled execution of Texas inmate Duane Buck, after his lawyers said his death sentence may have been tainted by considerations of race by the jury that sent him to death row.

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Mr. Buck’s lawyers sought a stay of execution from both the high court in Washington and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is a top contender for the Republican nomination for president. The Supreme Court granted its stay of execution late Thursday.

In their last-minute appeal, Buck’s lawyers argued that a psychologist improperly testified during the punishment phase of Buck’s 1997 capital murder trial that African-Americans are more likely to commit future violent crimes.

Buck is black. His lawyers argue that it is unconstitutional to use race as a factor when determining whether an individual should be sentenced to life in prison or death.

“We are relieved that the US Supreme Court recognized the obvious injustice of allowing a defendant’s race to factor into sentencing decisions and granted a stay of execution,” said Katherine Black, one of Buck’s lawyers with the Texas Defender Service, in a statement.

“No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin,” she said. “We are confident that the court will agree that our client is entitled to a fair sentencing hearing that is untainted by considerations of his race.”

In granting the stay late Thursday, the high court said it would halt the execution at least long enough for the submission and consideration of legal briefs. If the court denies Buck’s petition, the stay would end automatically and Texas would again be free to proceed with a scheduled execution, the order says.

It adds that if the court agrees to hear the case, the stay would remain in effect until the court issues its final judgment.

On Wednesday, a panel of the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the same argument in Buck’s appeal to that court. The panel said that Buck’s latest appeal “fails to demonstrate a substantial showing of the deprivation of a constitutional right."

Buck was convicted of the double murder of his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and Kenneth Butler in July 1995. Ms. Gardner and Buck had broken up a week earlier. After an argument, Buck returned to Gardner’s house with a shotgun and rifle. Gardner’s two children watched Buck kill their mother.

In addition to the two victims, Buck’s stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, was also at the house. He pressed the muzzle of the rifle to her chest and pulled the trigger. She fell to the floor but survived.

Ms. Taylor has since forgiven Buck and has joined efforts to block his execution.


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