How Broken Can it Be? The Cases of Duane Buck and Andrew Thomas

I have been involved with working to end the death penalty in some capacity now for over twenty years now. One would think after all this time, I would cease to be surprised by the things I discover about just how flawed the system is. And just when I think I have heard it all, I am proven wrong again.

Take the case of Duane Buck. On February 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6 to 2 decision that the Texas death row inmate would receive a new sentencing hearing. It seems that in the sentencing phase of Mr. Buck’s original trial, a psychologist testified to the jury that black defendants were more dangerous than white ones. And ironically, the psychologist was testifying on behalf of the defense.

Mr. Buck’s lawyers presented a report from the psychologist, Walter Quijano, who said that race was a factor to consider in determining future dangerousness of a defendant. Mr. Buck’s lawyer asked Dr. Quijano to elaborate. Dr. Quijano testified, saying, “It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.” A prosecutor then asked a follow up question: “The race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons — is that correct?” Dr. Quijano answered, “Yes.”

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion awarding Mr. Buck a new sentencing hearing,

“Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.

Then on Friday, February 24, Tennessee death row inmate Andrew Thomas was awarded a new trial on his state conviction by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Thomas, who was given a death sentence for the murder of armored truck guard James Day in Memphis (a man who died two year after the robbery), was awarded a new trial when the court found that Thomas’ prosecutor had a duty to disclose that an important witness had been paid prior to the trial.

According to the Commercial Appeal, the judges keyed in on part of the case in which now-Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, who prosecuted Thomas, questioned the witness, Thomas’ former girlfriend Angela Jackson. Jackson denied being paid.

“Have you collected one red cent for this?” Weirich asked Jackson, according to a trial transcript.

“No, ma’am,” Jackson replied. “I have not.”

The judges said in the ruling that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the evidence was “egregious.”

“This is all made even worse by the fact that the prosecutor failed to correct the record even after Jackson squarely denied receiving any ‘reward’ money in exchange for her testimony against Thomas,” the court said.

The ruling in the Thomas case comes as Weirich is also facing professional ethics charges by the Tennessee Board of Professional responsibility alleging misconduct in a separate case — the 2009 prosecution of Noura Jackson in the death of her mother, Jennifer Jackson. A hearing on those charges is scheduled for March. Also of concern in the Jackson case is the prosecution’s failure to turn over a witness statement to Jackson’s attorneys until after the trial.

In another case in 2014, Weirich denied knowledge of an envelope in the murder trial of Vern Braswell. Defense attorney Lauren Fuchs alleged that another lawyer, who had worked on the case previously, found an envelope marked with Weirich’s initials and “Do not show defense.”

Both the Buck and Thomas cases demonstrate just why we cannot trust the death penalty system to fairly and accurately determine who lives and who dies. These cases highlight again that no matter how much we work to improve the system, fallible human beings are not capable of being fair and accurate 100% of the time. There are too many factors in play. Taking a person’s life, when we already have cheaper alternatives to protect society and hold offenders accountable, has no place is such a system.

Read more about Duane Buck’s case.

Read more about Andrew Thomas’ case.

Photo of Andrew Thomas from the Commercial Appeal

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