Commentary

In Texas, ‘black’ means ‘future danger’

Updated: 2013-05-11T22:40:20Z

By LEONARD PITTS JR.

The Miami Herald

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 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 Buck himself represented little danger. But, said psychologist Dr. 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,” Quijano answered, “Yes.”

No one disputes Buck’s guilt. But about the sentence, there is plenty dispute, enough that his surviving victim and Linda Geffen, 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 cases, including Buck’s, in which 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. Buck was denied a new hearing.

Why? Bucks’ attorney, Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says the only explanation she has 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.”

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 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.

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.

To reach Leonard Pitts Jr., send email to lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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