The Supreme Court showed interest in granting convicted Texas murderer Duane Buck a second trial today, a decision that could spare Buck the death penalty. Buck could be facing life in prison—instead of lethal injection—if it weren’t for one man’s racist testimony, his lawyers argued. The majority of the justices appeared to agree.
Buck, found guilty of murdering two people, was sentenced to death in 1997 in a trial that featured testimony from prison psychiatrist Walter Quijano. Quijano, who was oddly brought to the stand by Buck’s attorney, suggested that Buck could be more dangerous in the future simply because he is black. This decision could have extinguished Buck’s shot at life in prison, instead of execution, according to Buck’s current lawyers.
His attorney’s decision to call Quijano to the stand, according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, showed just how “abysmal” Buck’s defense was in the first place.
Following the 1997 trial, former Attorney General John Cornyn found Quijano had used similar testimony in at least five other cases in Texas involving black defendants—and granted them each a new sentencing trial.
But poor timing left Buck’s case behind.
Cornyn left the AG seat before Buck’s case could be rescheduled, and his successor, now-Governor Greg Abbott, decided not to follow through on Cornyn’s promise. The case was then passed off to current Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office has continued to deny Buck even an opportunity to appeal his case.
Buck’s lawyers, who are up against Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller, aren’t arguing for a new trial—they’re simply asking the court to allow Buck to appeal his potentially flawed sentence.
“This is evidence of an explicit appeal to racial bias," said Buck’s NAACP attorney Christina Swarns in arguments before the Supreme Court. "This evidence put the thumb heavily on the death scale."
The court’s justices showed bipartisan skepticism to Keller’s argument against an appeal.
“Isn’t it a reasonable possibility that one juror...could have been convinced to exercise mercy if race wasn’t used?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked. “Can you answer that question ‘absolutely not?’ ”
Justice Samuel Alito, one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative, even called Quijano’s original testimony "indefensible."
And Cornyn, now Texas Senator and Majority Whip, still stands by his initial decision, going against his state’s current counsel.
“I haven’t changed my views on the correctness of the decisions I made when I was attorney general,” he told Dallas Morning News last week.