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msnbc.com news services
updated 9/15/2011 9:08:40 PM ET 2011-09-16T01:08:40

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday halted the execution of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial.

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Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without comment, said they would review an appeal in his case.

Two appeals, both related to a psychologist's testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted. The other denied.

"Praise the Lord!" Buck told Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark. "God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment.

"I feel good."

His lawyers called to tell Buck of the reprieve and the inmate was praying in his cell when Clark approached, Clark said.

The reprieve came nearly two hours into a six-hour window when Buck could have been taken to the death chamber. Texas officials, however, refused to move forward with the punishment while legal issues were pending.

A similar request for a reprieve was made to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry is the Republican frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination and his actions have now come under closer scrutiny. Perry, however, wasn't in the state Thursday and any decision on a reprieve from the governor's office would have fallen to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Buck's case is one of six convictions that the state's then-top attorney reviewed in 2000 and said needed to be reopened because of the racially charged statements made during the sentencing phase of the trial. A psychologist told jurors that black criminals were more likely to pose a future danger to the public if they are released.

Perry is an ardent supporter of capital punishment. During his 11 years in office, 235 convicted killers have been put to death in Texas. His office says he has chosen to halt just four executions, including one for a woman who was later put to death.

Perry on God: I was 'lost spiritually'

If courts continue to reject Buck's appeals, only Perry could delay the lethal injection by invoking his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for further review. Perry's actions are being closely watched, particularly by death penalty opponents, after he said during a presidential debate that he has never been troubled by any of the executions he's overseen as governor.

In the five other cases Cornyn said needed to be reopened, prosecutors repeated the sentencing hearings and the defendants were again sentenced to death. Prosecutors contend Buck's case was different from those and that the racial reference was a small part of a larger testimony about the prison population.

Video: Lawyers ask Perry to halt inmate's execution (on this page)

'Deserved what she got'
Buck was convicted in 1997 of capital murder in connection with the deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler, who were shot to death with a shotgun one night as they were hanging out with friends at Gardner's house.

Gardner had been Buck's girlfriend and their relationship ended a week before the shootings. Early in the morning on July 30, 1995, he forced his way into Gardner's house, argued with her, hit her and then grabbed his belongings and left, according to a report by the Texas Attorney General's office.

A few hours later, he returned with a rifle and a shotgun and began blasting at people in the house, the report said. The first person he shot was his sister, Taylor, who said he was on drugs and described his eyes as "bloodshot" and his voice as unrecognizable.

"He was full of many, many spirits and demons," Taylor said. "So I know when I was looking at him, talking to him, with the gun in my chest, I know he wasn't himself."

Then, according to the report, Buck accused Butler of sleeping with his "wife," and then shot him to death in the hallway. Then he chased Gardner out into the street, with her children close behind, and killed her while they watched, the report said.

Gardner's 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were among those who witnessed the shootings.

When police arrived, Buck was trying to leave the scene but he was arrested after the survivors identified him as the attacker. The report said that he laughed when he was being arrested and, after an officer told him it was not funny, Buck responded: "The bitch deserved what she got."

Buck had a history of drug and weapons charges, and jurors heard testimony from an ex-girlfriend who said he had threatened her, the report said.

Jury unfairly influenced?
Buck's guilt is not being questioned, but his lawyers say the jury was unfairly influenced and that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, all of whom are Perry appointees, had denied Buck's clemency request Wednesday, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently rejected his appeal.

Buck's lawyers contend the case was "tainted by considerations of race" after psychologist Walter Quijano testified in response to a question from lead prosecutor Joan Huffman that black criminals are more likely to be violent again in the future. Whether or not someone could be a continuing threat to society is one of three questions Texas jurors must consider when deciding on a death sentence.

Story: Will voters be frightened by Rick Perry?

Cornyn said in a news release in 2000 that a half-dozen capital case sentences, including Buck's, needed review because of Quijano's testimony at their trials.

A spokesman for Cornyn declined to comment.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Supreme Court blocks Texas execution

Photos: Rick Perry

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  1. Rick Perry, then the Agricultural Commissioner of Texas, applauds with other officials during a 1992 event for President George H. Bush, second from left. Perry began his political career in the Texas House of Representatives in 1985 and served three terms before becoming the Agricultural Commissioner which he held from 1991- 1999. (Marcy Nighswander / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. President-elect George W. Bush gets a hug from Texas Lt. Gov. Rick Perry following his resignation announcement in December 2000. Perry was sworn in as governor of Texas later that day. (Paul Buck / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Perry married his childhood sweetheart, Anita Thigpen, at left, in 1982. They have two children, daughter Sydney and a son, Griffin, at right. (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Perry fields questions about the planned Trans Texas Corridor in 2002. The 145 billion-dollar program that would have added highways, rail and data lines was criticized for being a 'land grab' and a potentially lucrative deal for the privately owned company Cintra. After much debate, the project was killed in 2010. (D.J. Peters / Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. President George W. Bush takes the stage to address a Republican fundraiser for Perry in June 2002 in Houston. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Perry debates Democrat Tony Sanchez during the 2002 governor's race. Perry easily won the election, his first of three. (Tony Gutierrez / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Perry (center) attends a memorial service for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Mission Control lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia during the reentry phase on February 1, 2003 and later learned that the shuttle had broken up over Texas. All seven astronauts on board were lost. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Perry, center, casts the votes on behalf of the delegates from his state during the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Perry signs an abortion consent bill in June 2005. The bill restricted abortion late in a pregnancy and required minor girls to get parental consent for an abortion. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Perry announces a special legislative session in June 2005. He vetoed the state's $35.3 billion public education budget and called lawmakers back to the Capitol to finally find a solution to the school finance dilemma. In 2001, Perry set a state record for the use of the veto, rejecting legislation 82 times. By 2005, he had used his veto power 133 times. (Thomas Terry / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Perry outlines his border security plan during a news conference in June 2006. Accusing the federal government of failing the state, Perry toured South Texas, selling his $125 million state plan for "neighborhood watch" surveillance cameras and better-funded border sheriffs' and police departments. Perry has opposed the creation of the physical barrier along the Mexico-U.S. border. (Mark Lambie / El Paso Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Perry made national headlines when he issued an executive order requiring the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV), an anti-cancer vaccine, for sixth-grade girls starting in September 2008. Some conservatives argued that the vaccine promoted promiscuity and took power out of the hands of parents. (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Perry attends a naturalization ceremony in 2007 where more than 1,000 Austin residents representing 85 countries took the Oath of Allegiance to become United States citizens. Perry supports the Arizona immigration ruling, the most restrictive anti-illegal immigration measure in America. (Taylor Jones / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Republican 2008 presidential hopeful and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani appears with Texas Governor Rick Perry during a campaign stop in Ft. Myers, Florida. When Perry joined the Texas House of Representatives in 1984, he was a Democrat and supported Al Gore in the 1988 presidential election. In 1989, he switched parties and became a Republican. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain waits to speak with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Round Rock, Texas, in 2008. Perry initially endorsed Giuliani for president but after the former New York City mayor bowed out of the race, Perry put his support behind McCain. (Ben Sklar / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Perry speaks appears on the screen at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. During college, Perry was a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets and served in the Air Force upon graduating. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. President George W. Bush participates in a briefing on Hurricane Ike damage with Perry in 2008. The storm resulted in the largest evacuation of Texas in the state's history. Later, during Hurricane Rita in 2005, Perry ordered contraflow lane reversal on several major highways to aid in the evacauation. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Perry speaks to the crowd during a "Don't Mess With Texas" tea party rally in Austin in April 2009. He was criticized after he said after the event that Texans might want to secede from the United States. "If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?" he said. "But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot." (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Perry listens as President Barack Obama addresses the Fort Hood community during a memorial service for the soldiers and civilians killed in a shooting rampage there on November 5, 2009. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison share a light moment during a Texas GOP gubernatorial debate in 2010. Perry easily defeated Hutchison in the hard-fought primary. (Louis Deluca / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Piper Palin and musician Ted Nugent appear on stage during a rally for Perry's re-election in 2010. A few weeks prior, Perry invited his friend and musician Ted Nugent to perform at his inaugural gala, where Nugent appeared onstage wearing a t-shirt with the Confederate flag, (Gary Miller / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Perry, a strong supporter of gun rights, fires a six-shooter pistol during a promotional event with Texas Motor Speedway in April 2010. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Perry, center, sings his alma mater's fight song before an NCAA college football game between Texas Tech and Texas A&M, in 2010. A graduate of Texas A&M, Perry was a member of the "Aggie Yell Leaders", or male cheerleaders, elected by popular vote of the student body. (Dave Einsel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Perry embraces his wife Anita after being elected to his third term by defeating Democratic challenger Bill White in 2010. (Ben Sklar / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Perry signs copies of his second book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington" during a stop in Tyler, Texas in 2010. (Jaime R. Carrero / Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, surrounded by his family, waves to the crowd after announcing his run for president, Aug. 13, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. (Alice Keeney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. During a televised GOP debate on CNBC, Rick Perry struggles to remember what three government agencies he had promised to shut down if elected president, as Teexas Rep. Ron Paul watches. Eight candidates took part in the 'Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate' at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, on Nov. 9. 2011. Later Perry admitted he had 'stepped in it.' (Jeff Kowalsky / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pauses during a news conference in North Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 19, 2012, where he announced he is suspending his campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich. His son Griffin is at left. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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