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Supreme Court Blocks Death Sentence Tainted by Racial Bias

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

After years of fruitless appeals, Duane Buck won a decisive victory in the Supreme Court this morning. The Texas inmate had been sentenced to death in part due to expert testimony, presented by his own defense, that Buck posed a greater risk of violence simply because of his race. For almost two decades, Buck challenged that death sentence, most recently by arguing that his counsel was ineffective and that his case merited relief due to the extraordinary circumstances. Today, the Supreme Court agreed, 6-2.

Buck's death sentence, tinged as it was by racism, was "a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system," Chief Justice Roberts wrote from the majority. "Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are."

Marked as Dangerous Because of His Race

Buck's case was one of the most watched -- and one of the most remarkable -- of the term so far. Buck was convicted in 1997 of killing his ex-girlfriend and a man he thought was her lover. To impose the death penalty, under Texas's capital sentencing rules, the jury needed to find that Buck was likely to act violently in the future.

That's where Dr. Walter Quijano comes in. Appointed by the court to conduct a psychological examination of Buck, Dr. Quijano produced a report arguing that Buck's race increased the probability of future violence. His reasoning? That "there is an overrepresentation of Blacks among the violent offenders."

Knowing the contents of this report, Buck's attorney called Quijano as an expert nevertheless. During questioning, Quijano said that "It's a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are over represented in the Criminal Justice System," and when asked by the prosecutor whether Buck's race made him a greater risk, Quijano simply responded "Yes."

A "Labyrinth" of Collateral Review

Buck has been challenging his death sentence ever since. "His case," Chief Justice Roberts wrote, soon "entered a labyrinth of state and federal collateral review, where it has wandered for the better part of two decades."

At issue here was whether Buck could argue that his counsel was ineffective for introducing Quijano's testimony. Because Buck had initially failed to pursue the claim in his first habeas petition, the state courts refused to hear it later. When Buck turned to the federal courts, they too ruled that his claims were unreviewable.

But then the Supreme Court decided Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, two cases that modified the traditional rule that "an attorney's ignorance or inadvertence in a postconviction proceeding does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default." Under Martinez and Trevino, Buck could now bring his ineffective assistance claim if he could demonstrate constitutionally ineffective post conviction counsel and a claim with "some merit."

Buck sought to reopen the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) which allows relief in exceptional circumstances. Both the district court and Fifth Circuit refused.

That refusal, the Supreme Court ruled today, was wrong.

A Noxious Strain of Racial Prejudice

Substantively speaking, Buck was prejudiced by Quijano's testimony and its introduction, the Court found, describing the choice to allow the testimony as "outside the bounds of competent representation."

The impact of the racial testimony could not be ignored. A jury could have decided, the Court posited, that Buck's past violence involving women and relationships would be cured by imprisonment alone. "But one thing," the Court wrote, "would never change: the color of Buck's skin." According to Quijano's testimony, that blackness made Buck dangerous no matter what.

Such testimony "appealed to a powerful racial stereotype -- that of black men as 'violence prone,'" the Court said. It "coincided with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice," creating a "perfect storm" for making a life or death determination on the basis of race. The effect could not be said to be "de minimus."

Procedurally, too, both the district court and Fifth Circuit created too high a barrier for Buck's ineffective assistance claims. To obtain a certificate of appealability, a litigant must only show that "a procedural ruling barring relief is itself debatable among jurists of reason," the Court explained, while Rule 60(b)(6)'s "extraordinary circumstances" requirement can be met by showing the risks of injustice to the parties or of undermining public confidence in the justice system. Buck's case certainly met those standards.

Following the Court's ruling, Buck will either be resentenced to life or face a new capital sentencing hearing -- this time without racially biased testimony.

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