Duane Buck was sentenced to life in prison last week, 20 years after he was first sentenced to death. In a plea deal, the 54-year-old Buck pleaded guilty to two murders, and to two additional counts of attempted murder, in exchange for the life sentence.
Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder two years earlier of two people, his girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler, in Houston. His sentence was at least partly due to the testimony of a psychologist who testified during the penalty phase that there was an increased probability that Buck would exhibit violent behavior in the future because he was black. In Texas, a jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future criminal acts of violence in order to sentence him to death.
Buck appealed, and earlier this year, in a 6-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a new sentencing hearing. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “This is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” Roberts also said the psychologist’s testimony “appealed to a powerful racial stereotype – that of black men as ‘violence prone.’”
The Texas Tribune reports that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she offered a plea deal because “A Harris County jury would likely not return a death penalty conviction today in a case that’s forever been tainted by the specter of race.”
Buck was not sentenced to life without parole because he had to be sentenced to the law that was on the books at the time he committed the crimes. Because Texas did not have a sentence of life without parole in 1997, the most severe sentence he could receive, other than death, was life. Ogg insisted he also plead guilty to the attempted murder charges (Buck also shot and wounded his sister, Phyliss Taylor, and his friend Harold Ebenezer), adding 60 years to his sentence, to decrease any chance for parole when he is up for review by the parole board in 2035.