Save 75% - Only $49.99 for 1 full year! digitalPLUS subscription offer ends 12/1
NewsOpinion

In Texas, black means future danger

Justice SystemThe Miami HeraldNAACPThe New York Times

If the state of Texas executes Duane Buck, it'll be because he is black.

Well, mainly it will be because in 1995, he shot his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler, to death at Gardner's Houston home, and also wounded his own stepsister, Phyllis Taylor. But it will also be because he's black.

In Texas, they have this rule: a jury contemplating the death penalty must evaluate the likelihood a defendant poses a future danger to the community. Jurors in Mr. Buck's trial were told he poses said danger because he is a black man.

Mind you, this came from a defense witness, whose ultimate finding was that Mr. Buck himself represented little danger. But, said psychologist Walter Quijano, "It's a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system."

When asked by the prosecutor whether "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness," Mr. Quijano answered, "Yes."

So Mr. Buck sits on death row awaiting an appeals court ruling on his bid for a new sentencing hearing. Not a new trial, you understand. No one disputes his guilt -- or the monstrousness of his crime. But about the sentence, there is plenty dispute, enough that his surviving victim and Linda Geffin, a prosecutor who helped convict him, both think he should get a new hearing. In 2000, Sen. John Cornyn, then Texas attorney general, identified six capital cases, including Mr. Buck's, in which Mr. Quijano gave similar testimony and conceded the state erred in allowing race to be used as a sentencing factor.

The other five defendants -- all black or Hispanic -- received new sentencing hearings. All were re-sentenced to death. Mr. Buck was denied a new hearing.

Why? Mr. Buck's attorney, Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says the only explanation she's heard "is it's because Quijano was called as a defense witness. That would sound like a plausible explanation, if not that Quijano was called as a defense witness in two of the other cases in which they did concede error."

Sara Marie Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Harris County DA, says there's a difference: in Mr. Buck's case, the offending testimony came on direct examination -- "not on cross." In other words, the defense brought it up first. Whatever. There is something viscerally wrong in relying upon so flimsy a rationale to justify so blatant an appeal to bias.

But race, argues Ms. Kinney, was not the only factor in the jury's decision. Mr. Buck, she notes, "was a violent offender who systematically killed these people. ... He checks all the boxes for the appropriate penalty being the death sentence."

Mr. Quijano, by the way, stands by his testimony. He told The New York Times, "The literature suggests ... correlation" between race and threat. It is not, he said, "the blackness of the person that is causing the violence. It is what goes with it. Poverty, the exposure to lack of education, exposure to criminal elements."

Psychology professor John Monahan, whose writings Mr. Quijano cited among the "literature," told the Times his work supports no such conclusion. Race, he said, "plays at most an extremely small role" in predicting future violent acts.

Moreover, it is specious in the extreme to act as if poverty, crime and ignorance are some natural outgrowth of blackness. They are not. They were imposed upon black people by generations of oppressive law, policy and custom. To act as if they are somehow endemic to blackness is like accusing a woman of walking funny after you have cut off her feet.

What we have here, then, is but the latest example of a "justice" system bloodied and soiled by racial bias. If Duane Buck is killed, it will be in part because an "expert" stoked a jury's fear of the scary black man. That is not just wrong.

It is obscene.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Justice SystemThe Miami HeraldNAACPThe New York Times
  • Forced sterilization still happens in America
    Forced sterilization still happens in America

    An investigative report into California's prisons found hundreds of inmates had been sterilized, and many said they were pressured to consent

  • Fracking moves forward
    Fracking moves forward

    A week ago, a failed switch in a home along the shores of Deep Creek Lake caused 1,700 gallons of raw sewage to accidentally spill into the water, enough that health officials had to monitor local water quality and post warning signs nearby after the cleanup. The episode was uncommon, but it...

  • Trees make a city look more beautiful
    Trees make a city look more beautiful

    Years ago, author Alice Walker published a book of poems entitled "Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful." Though the landscape in her verse was rural, she might well have said the same of the urban cityscape and its mature trees. Baltimore's leafy green canopy surely makes the city a...

  • Who's next?
    Who's next?

    What Marylander had the biggest impact on the state in 2014? The Sun is asking for your nominations for the 2014 Marylander of the Year. Please send them to talkback@baltimoresun.com and include "Marylander of the Year" in the subject line. We'll announce the finalists in mid-December and a...

  • Ferguson impact [Poll]
    Ferguson impact [Poll]
  • Report concludes Maryland can safely 'frack'
    Report concludes Maryland can safely 'frack'

    Maryland agencies have concluded that natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) can be accomplished without unacceptable risks, but only if a suite of best practices is required, monitoring and inspections are rigorous, and enforcement is ironclad. The...

  • Acknowledging climate change in GOP's best interest
    Acknowledging climate change in GOP's best interest

    November has been a good-news/bad-news month for the climate struggle.

  • Feed a 'Silent Guest' this Thanksgiving
    Feed a 'Silent Guest' this Thanksgiving

    This Thanksgiving put an extra chair at your table and make room for a "silent guest." That guest can be one of the world's 805 million hungry people.

Comments
Loading