Duane Buck, Rick Perry and the politics of death
Buck’s colour made him more likely to kill again said Dr Quijano, just another ‘expert witness’
SIMPLE RULE for killers: if you are going to murder someone in the United States, don't try to get the job done in Texas. Keep the hostage alive in the car till New Mexico, which recently banned the death penalty, or press on to California, which retains the death penalty but makes available very large sums of state money – potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars - for a capable death penalty defence.
That's enough to hire good investigators, lawyers and expert witnesses who can spend many years on the case – first the trial, then the penalty phase, then the appeals process which can go on for decades. California currently has 648 prisoners on Death Row in San Quentin and since 1976 has managed to execute only 13.
An indigent person charged with murder in the state of Texas, however, can maybe count on $500 for his court-appointed attorney to pay for special expenses. Yet the cost of importing an expert witness, who will be charging transportation, hotel and a fat fee, can easily exceed $10,000.
Business is correspondingly brisk in the lethal injection chamber in Huntsville, Texas. There are currently 413 on Death Row and at the time of writing 475 have been executed since 1976, 234 of them during Rick Perry's decade-long stint as state governor.
By the end of Thursday, September 15, we will maybe have had to adjust the number to 476 executed, unless Perry or his attorney general, Greg Abbott, have granted a 30-day stay of execution for Duane Edward Buck, who on Monday had his clemency request turned down by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
No one claims that Buck, 48, didn't shoot to death his former girlfriend and her male companion and wound a third in Houston in 1995. At issue is what an expert witness told the court during the sentencing hearing, where the jury decides whether the convicted murderer should go to prison for a life term, or get lodgings on Death Row.
To get Buck lined up for the lethal needle, his prosecutors needed to prove "future dangerousness". How might Buck behave in the event he ever got out of prison?
Dr Walter Quijano, a psychologist practising in Conroe, a town just south of Huntsville, had actually been called by the defence, who hoped that he would testify that Buck's killing spree was an act of rage unlikely to be repeated.
Under cross-examination, however, the prosecutors asked Quijano: "The race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?"
"Yes," Quijano answered, probably out of sheer force of habit, since usually he was the prosecution's expert, and had testified in similar fashion for the prosecution in six other cases, racially profiling the defendants into the Huntsville Death House.
That was enough for the jury, which cut smartly through all uncertainty about Buck's future decisions, by saying he should die, thus rendering speculation unnecessary.
In 2000, the then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (now a Republican US Senator), recognising the constitutional abuse for what it was, called for Buck and the other six to receive a re-trial. Buck is the only condemned man who hasn't got one. On Tuesday, Linda Geffin, one of Buck's prosecutors in 1995, joined the chorus of voices calling on Gov Perry to stay his execution.
What mostly has people marveling is Quijano's career stint in the 1990s as an "expert witness". Buck's was the only case where he was called by the defence. Expert witnessing is a trade – often a very profitable one - in which by far the most desirable characteristic is predictability. A truly expert witness for the defence would have regarded it as his first duty to reassure the jury of Buck's lamb-like character, utterly inconsistent with possibly lethal recidivism.
"Expert" covers many a bizarre resume. One famous expert witness unearthed a few years back by the Chicago Tribune had made it her costly speciality to identify nose and lip prints – a forensic skill which apparently lacked any reliable foundation.
Juries like a well-spoken expert witness, flourishing forensic data. The popularity of shows like CSI has enhanced the reputation of forensic "experts", even though much forensic testimony, up to and including finger-prints, is disfigured by mishandled evidence, mendacity and incompetence.
Of course it doesn't help that Buck's case has come down to the wire amid Perry's bid to get the Republican presidential nomination and right after Perry issued a fervent endorsement of the death penalty, earning him hearty cheers in the auditorium of the Reagan Library when he stressed that imposing it has never lost him a moment's sleep.
The most notorious example of presidential ambition trumping any humane considerations came on January 24, 1992, when Bill Clinton – beset by the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal amid his vital primary race in New Hampshire – hastened back to Little Rock to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man who'd managed to botch a suicide bid after his murders, and had no idea why they were strapping him down.
As they hunted for 45 minutes for a vein into which to shoot the sodium thiopental, Bill was having dinner with Mary Steenburgen. But that was Bill. Maybe Perry has been on his knees asking for guidance from the Lord, or – the functioning modern equivalent - seeking reassurance from his pollsters. ·
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