Supreme Court Temporarily Halts Texas Execution

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The U.S. Supreme Court has stopped a scheduled execution in Texas. The case raises questions about the role race played in the sentencing of Duane Buck. He had been scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday night. Buck's attorneys asked the Supreme Court to intervene because, during the original trial, a psychologist testified that black people were more likely to commit violent crimes.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And staying in Texas, we heard earlier this week about a convicted murderer on death row there. His execution was scheduled for yesterday. But last night, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution at the last minute due to questions over racial bias. As NPR's John Burnett reports from Austin, Texas, the case has drawn national attention because of Governor Rick Perry's run for the White House.

JOHN BURNETT: Last night, 48-year-old Duane Edward Buck had already been transferred to the holding cell adjacent to the death chamber. He had met with the prison chaplain and eaten his last meal of fried chicken and fried fish. Then at 7:40 p.m., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice got word that the execution could not go forward. Jason Clark, the public information officer for the prison system, walked over to the death house to get a statement from Buck.

JASON CLARK: I asked him how he felt, and he said praise the Lord. He said God is worthy of praise, and God's mercy triumphs over judgment. And then he ended it by saying I feel good. A short time later, he was transported back to death row.

BURNETT: Duane Buck, whom the state described as a violent cocaine dealer, was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to die for killing his ex-girlfriend and a male friend in Houston. Buck's guilt in the case is not at issue. Witnesses clearly identified him as the murderer. The Supreme Court is looking at controversial testimony from a former prison psychologist. Dr. Walter Quijano testified that in terms of future dangerousness - a key consideration for capital punishment in Texas - black men are more likely to commit violence. Buck is black.

In 2000, Buck's case was one of seven capital cases that were flagged by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn in which Dr. Quijano had made similar racial references. Cornyn is now a U.S. senator. Six of those seven defendants received new punishment trials and were all resentenced to death. Kate Black is one of Buck's attorneys.

KATE BLACK: You know what's particularly troubling about this case is that six out of the seven cases in which John Cornyn found error, six of those cases have been retried on sentencing without the use of race. And Mr. Buck remains the only person whose racially tainted sentence stands. And that is obviously problematic not only from a constitutional perspective but also kind of from a moral perspective.

BURNETT: The Texas attorney general's office declined to comment, but it did email a brief that it filed in the Buck case: quote, "the state acknowledges and agrees that it is inappropriate for it to raise an issue such as race for the jury to consider when assessing a defendant's guilt or punishment. But as the lower court explained, Buck's constitutional rights were not violated, because Buck himself presented the testimony about which he complains," close quote.

Dr. Quijano was an expert witness called by the defense. In 2009, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Buck's appeal, stating: Buck cannot now claim surprise at Quijano's testimony.

Rick Perry - a champion of capital punishment - has overseen the executions of 235 convicted murderers. That's many more than any other governor and nearly half of all executions in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974. The Supreme Court will conference on Monday to decide whether to grant a writ of certiorari, in which they would ask for additional briefings and possibly oral arguments on the Duane Buck case. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. which they would ask for additional briefings and possibly oral arguments on the Duane Buck case.

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