The U.S. Supreme Court issued a last-minute halt of the execution of a Texas man convicted of a double murder 16 years ago after lawyers argued that Duane Buck, who is black, was sentenced to death because the jury was told his race made him more violent.
The Supreme Court agreed to review an appeal from Buck's lawyers, who argued that an expert witness psychologist's testimony, which alleged Buck was more prone to violence because of his race, wrongfully influenced jurors' decision to give their client the death penalty.
Jason Clark, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said he found Buck praying in his cell when approached to tell the prisoner about the last-minute stay of execution, The Associated Press reported.
"Praise the Lord!" Buck, 48, told Clark. "God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment."
Buck's execution was set to take place Thursday after 6 p.m. CDT in Huntsville, Texas. The court's decision came two hours into a six-hour window when Buck could have been taken to the death chamber and given a lethal injection.
Either the U.S. Supreme Court or Texas Gov. Rick Perry had until midnight to authorize the stay. Perry, currently the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, had made no indication he would do so. The Texas governor was fundraising for his campaign in Iowa at the time the decision was put forth by the Supreme Court.
Buck’s attorney, Kate Black, praised the decision. "We are relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the obvious injustice of allowing a defendant's race to factor into sentencing decisions and granted a stay of execution to Duane Buck," she said.
Black added, "No one should be put to death based on the color of his or her skin. We are confident that the Court will agree that our client is entitled to a fair sentencing hearing that is untainted by considerations of his race."
Black had earlier requested a 30-day reprieve from both the court and Perry. However, the court did not specify the length of the stay.
One of the prosecutors in the Buck case, Linda Geffin, was a proponent of giving Buck a retrial. "It is regrettable that any race-based considerations were placed before Mr. Buck's jury," Geffin wrote in a letter to Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
"No individual should be executed without being afforded a fair trial, untainted by considerations of race," she added.
On July 30, 1995, Buck, burst into the home of Debra Gardner, his ex-girlfriend, carrying two loaded rifles. He shot Gardner's friend, Kenneth Butler. When Gardner attempted to escape, Buck chased the woman and shot her dead in the street – in front of her two children.
Buck also shot his sister, who was visiting Gardner at the time, but she survived and has since become one of Buck's main supporters.
The execution would have been the second this week for Perry and the state of Texas.
On Tuesday, Steven Woods was executed for a double murder despite no physical evidence and a co-defendant who admitted to the murders.
Woods maintained his innocence to the end. According to the Houston Chronicle, his last words were: "You're not about to witness an execution, you're about to witness a murder ... I've never killed anybody, never. This whole thing is wrong."