Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Denies Duane Buck a New Sentencing Hearing

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has denied Duane Buck's appeal for a new sentencing, meaning an execution date can be set if the Harris County District Attorney's Office chooses to seek an execution date.

Buck was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1997 for the murders of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and the man who was with her, Kenneth Butler. He also shot his stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, but Taylor survived. The big question has never been on Buck's guilt, but on why he was sentenced to death.

During his Harris County murder trial, a psychologist testified that Buck was more of a danger to society because he is African American. A few years after Buck was convicted, the psychologist, Walter Quijano, was cited by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn for giving racially influenced testimony to juries. Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, identified seven cases that needed to be reviewed for sentencing and Buck's was one of them. All of the other cases have been allowed new sentencing hearings, but Buck's has been denied.

His legal team took the matter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but the decision handed down in a six to three ruling on Wednesday denied Buck a new sentencing hearing. While Gardner's daughter has stated she doesn't feel like Buck needs a new hearing, the only surviving victim, Taylor, and one of the trial prosecutors, Linda Geffin, have asked for a new sentencing, along with more than 100 civil rights leaders, elected officials, former prosecutors, former Gov. Mark White and faith leaders.

"With today's decision, Texas has once again reneged on its promise to ensure that Mr. Buck would not be executed pursuant to a death sentence that was the unfair product of a prosecutorial appeal to racial bias and stereotype," Kate Black, attorney, Christina Swarnis, director of the Criminal Defense Project at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said in a joint statement.

Buck's team is urging the Harris County DA's Office not to seek an execution date for Buck. They plan on asking the U.S. Supreme Court to look into Buck's case with an eye toward due process and equal protection issues.

"We're deeply disappointed. I think that there's just no question that it's not right to seek to use racial bias to obtain a death sentence. Certainly we were hopeful the court would recognize that and take action," Kase said.

Buck's team is still looking at the legal options in the wake of the ruling. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest court in the state to rule on criminal cases, but there are still options in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear Buck's case back in 2011, but his lawyers are hoping to get a review of the case based on due process and equal protection issues.

Jeff McShan with the Harris County District Attorney's Office said they are still looking at the ruling and discussing what the next step will be on their side.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray