Duane Buck: what happens next? Duane Buck was granted a 30-day reprieve in Texas on Thursday night, but a series of legal obstacles remains before his execution is commuted to a life sentence • Dominic Rushe in New York • guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 September 2011 21.40 BST
Duane Buck, who has spent the last 16 years on death row in Texas,narrowly avoided lethal injection on Thursday. Now he must await another tense standoff as his lawyers attempt to have his execution commuted to a life sentence.
Buck was granted a 30-day reprieve this week, in a case that put the spotlight on Texas governor and would-be Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Perry refused to act on the case, which has been criticised for the involvement of a controversial psychologist who said Buck's being black could contribute to his "future dangerousness".
Now Buck's lawyers have asked the supreme court to look at the case, but legal experts believe it will eventually come back to Perry.
In order for the supreme court to hear the case, the nine justices have to vote to take it on, and a majority of five votes are needed. Buck's lawyers will ask for a petition of certiorari – known as a cert petition. Most cert petitions are denied, said Michael Radelet, a death penalty expert and sociology professor at the University of Colorado.
If the supreme court does grant the hearing, it will ask for briefs from both sides, and then listen to oral arguments in Washington. A decision could be expected before 30 June 2012, when the supreme court adjourns. As Buck is not challenging his guilt, the most he could hope for is life without parole, said Radelet.
But it is more than likely that the supreme court will not hear Buck's case, in which case his lawyers will ask for a clemency hearing. In Texas, such hearings are held by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has already rejected Buck's bid to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison. Perry appoints the board's members.
The board will then make a recommendation to Perry. Radelet said: "There are three factors that Perry will take into consideration. No1 is politics, No2 is politics, and No3 is politics."
He said that Perry's staunch support for the death penalty had won him a lot of favour with Tea Party members, but that it could cause problems in the future. "When it came up that he had presided over 234 executions at the Tea Party debate the other night, people applauded, but capital punishment may well come back and bite Perry in the ass," said Radelet.
He pointed to the case of Cameron Willingham, who was convicted of the murder of his three young children and executed on Perry's orders in 2004. Willingham was found guilty of murder by arson, but subsequent investigations have cast doubt on the arson claims. Perry has also been accused of impeding an investigation into the case, a charge he denies.
"His championing of the death penalty might play well withh the right wing, but with the broader electorate a case like that is likely to cause problems," said Radelet.
In 1997, Buck was found guilty of the murder of his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner. At his trail defence, psychologist Walter Quijano said Buck's colour made him more of a threat, a factor juries have to take into consideration when sentencing.
Buck's case was one of six identified in 2000 by then Texas attorney general John Cornyn that may have been tainted by Quijano's testimony. "It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system," Cornyn said at the time.
In the other five cases, all involving capital murders, federal courts ordered new hearings for the killers. Once again they were all sentenced to death.
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Duane Buck: what happens next? Duane Buck was granted a 30-day reprieve in Texas on Thursday night, but a series of legal obstacles remains before his execution is commuted to a life sentence Dominic ... more
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