Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence

Full Ruling available here

The Supreme Court handed down three opinions this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, 
Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:


A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.

Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....

Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....

Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....

[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But 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 Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:


Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.  But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here.  The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.

 

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