The Elephant in the Room in the Duane Buck Case

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Barring a last-minute reprieve from Governor Rick Perry, sometime after 7 p.m. on Thursday Duane Buck will become the 235th person to be executed in Texas in the last decade. Buck's case has drawn attention because of the role race-based testimony may have played in obtaining the death sentence. As I reported previously, a psychologist summoned by Buck's attorney testified under cross-examination that Buck's race (he's black) made him a greater threat to society; that testimony was then cited in the prosecutors' closing argument.

Buck's case is noteworthy because the racial argument was made so explicitly, and under oath. But the reality is that race is a determining factor in capital punishment sentencing whether a psychologist says so out-loud or not. As Amnesty International notes, "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." Among other things, they point out that:

  • A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
  • A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
  • A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

That kind of institutional bias means that it's a lot harder to point to specific cases, a la Buck, in which race impacted the sentence—which means that, unlike Buck, most defendants will have a hard time making the case that their sentencing was in any way mishandled. But taken in sum, the numbers are pretty damning.

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