On the morning of July 30, 1995, Duane Edward Buck had a fierce argument with his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, at her house. He was on parole after being convicted for delivering cocaine, and was believed to be under the influence of drugs that morning. The couple had broken up a week earlier. Buck was convinced Gardner was sleeping with her friend Kenneth Butler.
Buck grabbed a shotgun and came back to the house a few hours later. When he came through the door, the first person he saw was his own step-sister, Phyllis Taylor. He put a round into her chest, then blew Gardner’s friend Kenneth Butler away. Taylor was able to survive her wound.
Debra Gardner ran out the back door into the street, screaming and crying. Her fourteen-year-old daughter ran after Buck, begging him not to kill her mother. He ignored her and brought Gardner down by shooting her in the chest. Numerous witnesses, including the arresting officers, saw him stand over her, laugh, and say “The bitch, she deserved it” as she bled to death.
None of these details are even slightly in doubt. Everything about this brutal broad-daylight rampage has been confirmed by multiple witnesses. There is absolutely zero question of Buck’s guilt.
You might have read a few news reports about Duane Buck this morning, because he was supposed to be executed for his crimes last night, but the Supreme Court stayed his execution. Have any of those news reports carried the details I just gave you about Buck’s crimes?
Of course not. Debra Gardner and her grieving family lived near Houston, you see, and the governor of Texas happens to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Liberals are very, very interested in making hay about the number of executions in Texas. Telling you the full story of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler’s deaths, especially the part where her young daughter begged the animal who gunned her down in the street for her life, would not be helpful to that narrative.
Despite those impassioned pleas, Duane Buck did not grant Debra Gardner a stay of execution, but the Supreme Court just gave him one. According to Fox News, Buck was praying in his cell, two hours into his six-hour execution window, when he got the happy news. “Praise the Lord!” the convicted murderer exclaimed. “God is worthy to be praised. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. I feel good!”
Shall I end the story there? After all, the rest of the media doesn’t think it’s important to give you any confusing details about exactly what Buck did. Should I take the same approach, and avoid mentioning the reason Buck’s execution was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, after losing appeals to lower courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles? If we’re only going to tell half of the story, why should it be the second half?
As CBS News analyst Andrew Cohen notes, the Supreme Court’s move is unusual, because “they rarely intervene in death penalty cases where the guilt of the defendant is not in doubt.” The problem with Buck’s conviction stems entirely from a single question asked by a prosecutor during his sentencing. As the L.A. Times reports:
At issue is the sentencing hearing, at which jurors were called upon to decide whether to condemn him to death or to life in prison. Under Texas law, the jury must weigh whether the defendant poses a “future danger.”
Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist and defense witness, testified that Buck was not likely to be dangerous because he had no previous history of violence.
But a prosecutor cited the “the race factor” and asked whether Buck’s being black “increases the future dangerousness.” Yes, the psychologist replied. Prosecutors cited that testimony in their closing argument.
The Assistant Attorney General of Texas, Edward Marshall, told the Supreme Court that “the record in Buck’s case reveals that no constitutional violation occurred during his sentencing trial.” Buck’s lawyers say his conviction is irredeemably tainted by the prosecutor’s racial question, and want a new sentencing hearing. From the Fox News report:
“We are relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the obvious injustice of allowing a defendant’s race to factor into sentencing decisions and granted a stay of execution to Duane Buck,” Kate Black, one of Buck’s attorneys, said. “No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin. We are confident that the court will agree that our client is entitled to a fair sentencing hearing that is untainted by considerations of his race.”
Buck’s step-sister Phyllis Taylor says she has forgiven him, and wants his sentence commuted to life in prison. Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler could not be reached for comment.