At Duane Buck’s 1997 trial, a jury sentenced him to death based in part on the testimony of an “expert” who said that, because Buck is black, he was more likely than a white person to be a future danger to society. In other words, he was especially deserving of the death penalty not because of the circumstances of the crime, but because of his race.
The argument is astounding in its bald-faced racism. Even more astounding is that it took the courts until last week to finally agree that Buck’s death sentence was tainted by racism and could not stand.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Buck’s case is the latest in a series of decisions condemning racism in death penalty trials. Last year, the court overturned the death sentence of Timothy Foster after evidence showed prosecutors had purposefully removed African-Americans from the all-white jury that decided his sentence. Foster was one of three high court decisions in the past decade condemning the pervasive practice of striking black jurors from death penalty cases.
Despite the Supreme Court’s clear messages, states – including North Carolina – can’t seem to accept that death sentences tainted by racism are illegal.
In Texas, the state fought to execute Buck for two decades. And in North Carolina, the state continues to push for executions despite clear evidence that black jurors have been illegally denied the right to decide life-and-death cases.
An exhaustively-researched, peer-reviewed study found that, in capital trials between 1990 and 2010, qualified black jurors were more than twice as likely as whites to be struck by N.C. prosecutors.
So far, our state’s response to that revelation has been to repeal the law that exposed it — the N.C. Racial Justice Act — and to refuse to hold hearings in more than 100 death row cases where evidence of racial bias has been alleged.
Only four of N.C.’s death row inmates were allowed hearings under the Racial Justice Act, and all four presented such compelling evidence of racial bias that they were resentenced to life without parole. Yet, the state couldn’t let even those small victories stand. The courts recently sent the four inmates back to death row, based not on the evidence in their cases but on legal technicalities.
As Buck’s case so clearly illustrates, and as we’ve seen in North Carolina, the vast majority of judges and prosecutors who administer the death penalty in the United States are unwilling to forthrightly address the role of race in deciding who lives and who dies. As long as they remain in denial about racism’s role in the death penalty, we should not be executing anyone.