US SUPREME COURT GRANTS TEXAS DEATH ROW INMATE DUANE BUCK NEW HEARING
February 22, 2017: Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-2 to order a new sentencing for Duane Buck, a Texas death-row prisoner.
Buck, 53, Black, was convicted of the 1995 murders of a former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and one of her friends, Kenneth Butler, while Ms. Gardner‚Äôs young children watched. Texas law allows death sentences only if prosecutors can show the defendant poses a future danger to society.
During the trial‚Äôs sentencing phase in 1997, Buck‚Äôs lawyers presented a report from a psychologist, Walter Quijano, who told the jury Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said that "dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle." Buck's case turned on the legal question of whether his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance. The Court left no doubt on the issue.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "no competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client." Despite counsel's deficient representation, the lower federal courts had refused to intervene, asserting that the references to race in the case had been brief and would have had only minimal, if any, effect on the jury's sentencing decision.
The Chief Justice squarely rejected that conclusion, writing: "when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant‚Äôs race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses." The Court explained that stereotyping black men as somehow more violence-prone than others is a "particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice."
Buck's attorney, Christina Swarns, who had argued the case before the Court in October 2016, said ‚ÄúToday, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system.‚ÄĚ The decision, she said, reaffirms "the longstanding principle that criminal punishments‚ÄĒparticularly the death penalty‚ÄĒcannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.‚ÄĚ
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented. (Source: Reuters, NBC News, February 22, 2017)