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‘Noxious Strain Of Racial Prejudice’: SCOTUS Sides With Man Whose Race Played Role In Death Penalty

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Supreme Court sided with a black Texas inmate who was sentenced to death after an expert witness told a jury that his race made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.

In a 6-2 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court said that inmate Duane Buck was entitled to a new hearing because his race played a decisive role in sentencing.

“Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” Roberts wrote. “Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.”

Buck was convicted of the 1995 murders of his girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and Kenneth Butler, whom he believed Gardner was having an affair with. Buck killed them in front of Gardner’s children, before turning the gun on his own stepsister, Phyllis Taylor. Taylor survived the point-blank blast to her chest.

At trial, Buck’s own lawyer Jerry Guerinot, a capital defense attorney perhaps unworthy of the name, elicited testimony from a psychologist named Walter Quijano, who told jurors that Buck was statistically more likely to commit crimes again because he was black. Potential for future violence is a key element of a death penalty sentence. The jury, relying on this testimony, sentenced him to death.

On appeal in the state courts, Buck’s lawyers failed to raise the matter of the racially-biased testimony. He lost each of his appeals in the state courts, prompting him to hire new lawyers and appeal in federal court. Buck’s new lawyers made an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing his trial lawyer’s incompetence affected the final sentence. However, the federal courts ruled they could not consider his claim this claim, because he had not raised it in the state courts first. They also ruled he could not attempt to overturn his death sentence under a federal rule that allows appeals in an “extraordinary circumstance.”

Despite these complicated procedural issues, the Court concluded that Buck had demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel, as his own lawyer had offended the bedrock constitutional principle that race should play no role in criminal sentencing. The extraordinary nature of this case, they said, warranted a new hearing.

“Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing,” Roberts wrote. “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.”

Elsewhere in the opinion, Roberts approvingly quoted Buck’s brief to the Court, saying “it stretches credulity to characterize Mr. Buck’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim as run-of-the-mill.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the Court’s ruling. His opinion was joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

“Having settled on a desired outcome, the court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it,” Thomas wrote. “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.”

Outside in the Court’s gleaming plaza after oral arguments in October, Taylor told reporters she had forgiven her step-brother for shooting her and expressed support for his appeal.

“I would pray for a conversion to life,” she said.

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