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Supreme Court halts killer's execution in Texas

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday halted the execution of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial.

Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without comment, said they would review an appeal in his case.

Two appeals, both related to a psychologist's testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted. The other denied.

"Praise the Lord!" Buck told Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark. "God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment.

"I feel good."

His lawyers called to tell Buck of the reprieve and the inmate was praying in his cell when Clark approached, Clark said.

The reprieve came nearly two hours into a six-hour window when Buck could have been taken to the death chamber. Texas officials, however, refused to move forward with the punishment while legal issues were pending.

A similar request for a reprieve was made to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry is the Republican frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination and his actions have now come under closer scrutiny. Perry, however, wasn't in the state Thursday and any decision on a reprieve from the governor's office would have fallen to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Buck's case is one of six convictions that the state's then-top attorney reviewed in 2000 and said needed to be reopened because of the racially charged statements made during the sentencing phase of the trial. A psychologist told jurors that black criminals were more likely to pose a future danger to the public if they are released.

Perry is an ardent supporter of capital punishment. During his 11 years in office, 235 convicted killers have been put to death in Texas. His office says he has chosen to halt just four executions, including one for a woman who was later put to death.

If courts continue to reject Buck's appeals, only Perry could delay the lethal injection by invoking his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for further review. Perry's actions are being closely watched, particularly by death penalty opponents, after he said during a presidential debate that he has never been troubled by any of the executions he's overseen as governor.

In the five other cases Cornyn said needed to be reopened, prosecutors repeated the sentencing hearings and the defendants were again sentenced to death. Prosecutors contend Buck's case was different from those and that the racial reference was a small part of a larger testimony about the prison population.

'Deserved what she got'
Buck was convicted in 1997 of capital murder in connection with the deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler, who were shot to death with a shotgun one night as they were hanging out with friends at Gardner's house.

Gardner had been Buck's girlfriend and their relationship ended a week before the shootings. Early in the morning on July 30, 1995, he forced his way into Gardner's house, argued with her, hit her and then grabbed his belongings and left, according to a report by the Texas Attorney General's office.

A few hours later, he returned with a rifle and a shotgun and began blasting at people in the house, the report said. The first person he shot was his sister, Taylor, who said he was on drugs and described his eyes as "bloodshot" and his voice as unrecognizable.

"He was full of many, many spirits and demons," Taylor said. "So I know when I was looking at him, talking to him, with the gun in my chest, I know he wasn't himself."

Then, according to the report, Buck accused Butler of sleeping with his "wife," and then shot him to death in the hallway. Then he chased Gardner out into the street, with her children close behind, and killed her while they watched, the report said.

Gardner's 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were among those who witnessed the shootings.

When police arrived, Buck was trying to leave the scene but he was arrested after the survivors identified him as the attacker. The report said that he laughed when he was being arrested and, after an officer told him it was not funny, Buck responded: "The bitch deserved what she got."

Buck had a history of drug and weapons charges, and jurors heard testimony from an ex-girlfriend who said he had threatened her, the report said.

Jury unfairly influenced?
Buck's guilt is not being questioned, but his lawyers say the jury was unfairly influenced and that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, all of whom are Perry appointees, had denied Buck's clemency request Wednesday, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently rejected his appeal.

Buck's lawyers contend the case was "tainted by considerations of race" after psychologist Walter Quijano testified in response to a question from lead prosecutor Joan Huffman that black criminals are more likely to be violent again in the future. Whether or not someone could be a continuing threat to society is one of three questions Texas jurors must consider when deciding on a death sentence.

Cornyn said in a news release in 2000 that a half-dozen capital case sentences, including Buck's, needed review because of Quijano's testimony at their trials.

A spokesman for Cornyn declined to comment.