Duane Buck has long argued that a Harris County jury sentenced him
to death by lethal injection partly because of racial prejudice after a
psychologist called by his own attorney testified that Buck was more
likely to commit more violent crimes because he is black. Earlier this
year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him, and ordered a new
And now that sentence has been handed down.
who was worried that Buck would somehow get off the hook can calm down.
Buck, already convicted of two murders, is no longer slated for
execution, but at the same time, he is unlikely ever to be freed from
On Tuesday, Buck appeared in a Harris County courtroom
and pleaded guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder. In
exchange, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg agreed not to pursue
the death penalty against Buck. He has now been sentenced to life in
prison along with two 60-year terms that he will serve concurrently.
reviewing the evidence and the law, I have concluded that, twenty-two
years after his conviction, a Harris County jury would likely not return
another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been
tainted by the indelible specter of race,” Ogg said in a statement.
“Accordingly, in consideration for Buck pleading guilty to two
additional counts of attempted murder, we have chosen not to pursue the
This comes more than 20 years after Buck murdered
two people in Houston and tried to kill two more. In July 1995, he
killed his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and Kenneth Butler, his
stepsister's new boyfriend. Buck wounded his stepsister, Phyllis Taylor,
and Harold Ebeneezer, another man at the scene of the shootings.
was easily convicted when he stood trial for capital murder two years
later. The only question was whether he would be sentenced to death or
life in prison for his crimes. That was where things went awry.
then, Texas juries could impose the death penalty only if it was found,
unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was "a
probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence
that would constitute a continuing threat to society." Even with this
requirement, prosecutors were making a good case against Buck, using
witnesses to highlight his apparent lack of remorse and getting people
from his life to recount stories that demonstrated that the violence in
July 1995 was not out of character for Buck.
then Buck's defense counsel, Jerry Guerinot, a lawyer who was already
on his way to racking up a substantial record for losing death penalty
cases, called Walter Quijano as an "expert" witness. Guerinot asked
Quijano — who has since been found to have given problematic testimony
promoting racial bias in numerous cases over the years — how the jury
should judge whether Buck would be a future menace to society.
a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are
overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” Quijano replied.
prosecutors used Quijano's testimony to argue that Buck deserved the
death penalty, which gave the jury enough to support sentencing Buck to
death via lethal injection.
Just three years later, in 2000,
then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn acknowledged that seven people,
including Buck, who had been sentenced to death based on Quijano's
racist testimony had been denied their constitutional right to be judged
without any regard to the color of their skin. Cornyn said the state
AG's office would review the sentencing hearings for these defendants.
in 2002, the AG's office, with now-Governor Greg Abbott at the helm,
decided Buck should not have another hearing since, unlike in the other
cases, his own attorney had called Quijano to the stand.
From there, his case bounced through the court system repeatedly,
landing three times before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court took up Buck's case,
finding in February that Buck needed to have a new sentencing, according
to the decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, who described
Buck's case as "a perfect storm." Roberts noted that Quijano's
testimony, "which itself coincided precisely with the central question
at sentencing," created an "unusual confluence of factors to provide
support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race."
So now Buck has been given a new sentence.
will now be eligible for parole in 2035, although he'll go before the
parole board for prior convictions for capital murder, two counts of
attempted murder, delivery of cocaine and possession of cocaine. David
Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who specializes in
death penalty cases, says that with the two counts of attempted murder
added to Buck's other convictions, there's "almost zero chance" that
Buck will ever be released on parole.
factor must have made this deal appealing to Ogg, since it means that
there's no risk of having to put the case before a jury. (Just imagine
the outrage that could be generated if Buck were either re-sentenced to
death or to life in prison.)
So now, the whole ugly situation of
potentially executing a man who was unfairly sentenced to death has been
neatly put away, barring some freakish situation where he is ultimately
“The facts of Duane Buck’s heinous crimes are not in
dispute. He was a habitual felon who, in a fit of rage, murdered two
people and tried to murder two more,” Ogg said. “There is no apology or
good will or good time that can substitute for the justice of spending
his life behind bars in payment for lives he took. However, this case
can accomplish something. It can close a chapter in the history of our
courts, in that they will never again hear that race is relevant to
criminal justice or to the determination of whether a man will live or
die. Race is not and never has been evidence.”