SCOTUS Says Racially Biased Testimony Sentenced Black Man to Death

By Kenrya Rankin Feb 22, 2017

In 1995, Duane Buck shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and a man who was in her home. He was convicted of capital murder in a Texas court. At his sentencing hearing, his attorneys introduced the testimony of a former prison psychiatrist who testified that while Buck was unlikely to be violent again, the fact that he was Black increased the probability of a future violent offense. “It’s a sad commentary,” Dr. Walter Quijano said, per court documents, “that minorities, Hispanics and Black people, are over represented in the criminal justice system.” After two days of deliberation, the jury sentenced Buck—who is Black—to death.

Over the next two decades, Buck appealed his sentence at the state and federal levels, arguing that his attorneys should not have solicited discriminatory testimony that used his race as a basis for his punishment. In 2014, he ended up in a federal court, asking justices to review his case because he felt his counsel was ineffective, which violated his Sixth Amendment rights. The district court denied his motion to reopen his case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6), as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. So Buck’s new counsel asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

That body decided 6-2 today (February 22) that the appeals court’s decision in Buck v. Davis should be reversed and Buck should have another chance to argue that he does not deserve the death penalty for his crime—this time, without racially prejudiced testimony biasing the jury.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, filed the dissenting opinion.

From the majority opinion:

Our holding on prejudice makes clear that Buck may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race. As an initial matter, this is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: 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. As petitioner correctly puts it, “[i]t stretches credulity to characterize Mr. Buck’s [ineffective assistance of counsel] claim as run-of-the-mill.” Brief for Petitioner 57.

This departure from basic principle was exacerbated because it concerned race. “Discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.” Rose v. Mitchell, 443 U. S. 545, 555 (1979). Relying on race to impose a criminal sanction “poisons public confidence” in the judicial process. Davis v. Ayala, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 28). It thus injures not just the defendant, but “the law as an institution, . . . the community at large and . . . the democratic ideal reflected in the processes of our courts.” Rose, 443 U. S., at 556 (internal quotation marks omitted). Such concerns are precisely among those we have identified as supporting relief under Rule 60(b)(6).

Read the full opinion here.

(H/t NBC News)