SCOTUS Rules Duane Buck Entitled to New Sentencing Hearing in Texas Racial Bias Death Penalty Case
(Washington, D.C., February 22, 2017) Today, in a 6-2 decision in Buck v. Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Texas death row prisoner Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death after a Houston jury heard false and unconstitutional testimony from a defense “expert” that Mr. Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is Black. Today’s ruling means Mr. Buck will either be resentenced to life imprisonment, or receive a new sentencing hearing untainted by racial bias.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts which can be accessed here (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-8049_f2ah.pdf), explains that the unconstitutional “expert” testimony in Mr. Buck’s case appealed to a “particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice,” i.e., “that of black men as ‘violence prone.’” (p. 19). Characterizing such testimony as akin to a deadly toxin, the Court held that Mr. Buck’s death sentence cannot stand. (p. 19.) “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.” (p. 21).
“Today, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system,” said Christina Swarns, counsel of record for Mr. Buck and Litigation Director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “By acknowledging that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel’s injection of racially biased evidence into the capital sentencing proceedings was unconstitutional, the Court has reaffirmed the longstanding principle that criminal punishments – particularly the death penalty – cannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.”
In 1997, Duane Buck was sentenced to death after his own trial counsel knowingly introduced “expert” testimony that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is Black. Because a Texas death sentence requires a unanimous jury finding that the defendant will be likely to commit future acts of criminal violence, this was tantamount to saying that Mr. Buck’s race rendered him more deserving of a death sentence.
Although Texas conceded error based on similar testimony by Dr. Walter Quijano in six other cases, and promised to do the same in Mr. Buck’s case, it reneged on its promise to Mr. Buck alone. Mr. Buck asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the federal courts’ refusal to consider his claim that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for knowingly introducing Dr. Quijano’s race-as-dangerousness testimony.
“Enough is enough. There can be no debate that Mr. Buck’s race does not make him a greater danger to society. Furthermore, given that Mr. Buck has been a model prisoner for over twenty years, it is highly likely that in a hearing free of racial bias, jurors today would sentence him to life in prison. Today’s ruling gives us hope that the ugliness of Mr. Buck’s tainted death sentence will soon be put behind us and he will receive a life sentence,” said Kate Black, Senior Staff Attorney at Texas Defender Service who, along with Kathryn Kase, Senior Counsel at TDS, represents Mr. Buck.
One of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors, the surviving victim, a former Texas Governor and more than 100 civil rights leaders, elected officials, clergy, former prosecutors and judges, and past ABA presidents have supported Mr. Buck’s claim that his racially-biased death sentence cannot stand. Additionally, former Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn – who conceded error in Mr. Buck’s case and six others where Dr. Quijano injected an unconstitutional and racially-biased opinion into the capital sentencing hearings – reaffirmed “the correctness” of his decision in an October 5, 2016 Dallas Morning News piece.
“Today’s ruling is a powerful statement from the U.S. Supreme Court, giving Texas the opportunity to finally do the right thing in Mr. Buck’s case,” said Sam Spital, co-counsel and Partner at Holland & Knight, LLP.
For additional background on Mr. Buck’s case, please go to: http://bit.ly/1PquEKK
A video about Mr. Buck’s case, “A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty and the Duane Buck Case,” can be accessed here:
2-minute version: https://youtu.be/-ev67uDm5D4;
10-minute version: https://youtu.be/TzjVcuKKqZY