On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas inmate can appeal his sentence after twenty years on death row. In 1995, Duane Buck was convicted of killing two people (his ex-girlfriend and a male victim). In 2000, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn reopened several cases that were suspected of racial bias during sentencing. Buck’s case was among this group, but he was the only defendant to not receive a new hearing.
In all of the cases, an expert witness named Dr. Walter Quijano spoke, and Buck claimed that during his sentencing phase, Quijan’s testimony was racially charged, for he told the jury being that being black “increased the probability” that Buck would be more dangerous in the future.
SCOTUS agreed with Buck (6-2) that an appeals court erred by not providing a new hearing. At issue was Quijan’s statement to the jury while addressing one of Texas’ “special issues” on the death penalty; that is, whether Buck’s “future dangerousness” was high enough to warrant the punishment. Chief Roberts, in his majority ruling, wrote that this testimony “was potent evidence. Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype — that of black men as ‘violence prone.'” Here’s more of Roberts’ 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 … When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s 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.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was aghast that lawyers would allow Quijano to deliver such a statement: “What competent counsel would put that evidence before a jury?” Indeed, Roberts agreed that the attorneys were demonstrably “ineffective” in preventing that testimony from airing in open court. On appeal, Buck’s lawyers did argue that incoming Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (who is now Texas’ governor) should have given Buck a new hearing, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals felt otherwise. Now, SCOTUS has spoken, and Buck’s new sentencing hearing shall happen.
Of the two dissenting justices, Clarence Thomas (of course) was the most vocal: “Having settled on a desired outcome, the court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.”