Supreme Court considers reopening racially biased Harris County case

Lisa Dreher

The U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal last Wednesday to reopen a death row inmate’s case from Houston in which a psychologist testified the inmate is potentially dangerous because he is black, prompting a nation-wide dialogue on ongoing racial conflicts and a broken legal system.

“I find it hard to believe that in 2016 a psychologist would make such a statement about, essentially, race,” said Kevin Cokley, an educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies professor at UT. 

Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997, two years after breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s home, shooting and killing her and her friend. Under Texas law, a jury must decide that the suspect is a “future danger” to the public to impose a death sentence. Buck’s defense lawyer had psychologist Walter Quijano give “expert” testimony, in which Quijano said Buck is more dangerous because he is black.

“It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system,” Quijano said to the jury. 

Quijano said statistically, factors like race, age, sex and socioeconomic status prompt criminal activity. The prosecutor then asked Quijano if he believed race contributes to one’s ability to be dangerous, to which he answered “yes.”  

“Certainly, in my profession, that is not a statement that would be popular or one that would be endorsed by the American Psychological Association,” Cokley said.

The psychologist later told the Texas Tribune in early 2013 he only meant these factors influence decisions to commit crimes, but it “doesn’t mean that because you are a certain race you are more likely to commit a violent act.” 

Chemistry senior Eric Guevara, a Houston native, said minorities are treated worse in his hometown, where citizens are divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

“It’s segregation based off of social status now,” Guevara said. “They do that by limiting a big population of minorities to impoverished conditions.”

Guevara said when he was caught going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, he felt the police officer was more wary because he is Hispanic.

“If I took a more serious tone of voice, it put him in more of a tense situation [mindset],” Guevara said.

Buck’s guiltiness is not being denied, but his defense lawyers appealed later that the testimony could not be used to sway the jury. 

The Fifth Circuit courts rejected the appeal, and the office of then-Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott released a statement saying “Buck himself presented the testimony about which he complains.” 

The Court has yet to decide to reopen the case.