Murderer Duane Buck Escapes Texas Death Row With New Sentence

Duane Buck was slated to end up here, but he's now been given a life sentence.
Duane Buck was slated to end up here, but he's now been given a life sentence.
Image courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice
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 sentencing.

And now that sentence has been handed down.

Anyone 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 prison.

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.

“After 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 death penalty.”

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.

Buck 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.

Back 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.

And 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.

“It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” Quijano replied.

The 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.

But 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.

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From there, his case bounced through the court system repeatedly, landing three times before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals alone.

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.

Buck 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.

That 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 released.

“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.”


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