Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death Row Inmate
The U.S. Supreme Court decided on February 22, 2017 in Buck v. Davis, 580 U.S. _____(2017), that the death sentence of a Texas man, Duane Buck, should be reversed because his own attorneys admitted evidence that he would be violent in the future because he is black.
In the 6-2 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court held that mention of Buck's race from an expert witness prejudiced him before the jury to such extent that he was sentenced to death for being a black man. Roberts wrote "Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are."
Aside from the very technical procedural issues that the court decided on, they also reached the constitutional issues involved in this case. The court held that Buck's attorneys violated the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by providing Buck with "ineffective assistance of counsel" because no competent defense attorney would allow evidence about his own client showing that a defendant's race made them more violent.
INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE and STRICKLAND
In 1984, the Supreme Court decided the case of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which involved a Florida man sentenced to death for murdering three people. During the sentencing, his attorney failed to conduct any pre-sentence investigation, gather mitigating evidence or introduce a psychiatric report about his client who was suffering from extreme mental distress at the time of the crimes. After several appeals, the Supreme Court finally took the case and set the standard for 'effective assistance' of counsel that is used today.
The court establishes a two-pronged test to determine whether defense counsel's performance is constitutionally ineffective.
- First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient and fell below an objective standard of reasonableness so as to deprive the defendant of the 'counsel' guaranteed by the 6th Amendment.
- Second, the defendant must show that the deficiency deprived the defendant of a fair trial, meaning that the deficiency must have prejudiced him or her to the extent that, but for counsel's errors, the result would have been different.
INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE and BUCK
In this case, Duane Buck was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler, in 1995. During the trial, Buck's defense attorneys had him examined by a court appointed psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano. Dr. Quijano examined Buck in prison and shared his findings with Buck's defense attorneys. In his report, Dr. Quijano considered seven 'statistical factors' that he used to determine whether Buck would pose a danger in the future.
"At the time of Buck’s trial, a Texas jury could impose the death penalty only if it found—unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt—“a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society."
During the sentencing phase of his trial, after his guilt had already been determined, his attorneys called Dr. Quijano to the stand and examined him under oath regarding his report and the statistical factors he cited. One of the factors was labeled 'race' and Dr. Quijano indicated that Buck's black race represented an "increased probability" of future violence and that there is an "overrepresentation of Blacks among the violent offenders." He further testified that race was a known indicator of future violence. The jury unanimously voted to impose a death sentence on Buck.
The Supreme Court reasoned that no competent attorney, knowing that this was competent evidence indicating Buck's propensity for future violence, would have allowed Dr. Quijano to testify. In the Court's prior decisions, the justices held that race was a patently unconstitutional ground for sentencing determinations. The color of a person's skin bears absolutely no relation to how they should be punished. Considering that the purpose of the hearing was to determine future violence and based on Dr. Quijano's testimony that Buck's past violence stemmed from his romantic relationships with women, the court held that it is reasonable to infer that at least one juror could have formed 'reasonable doubt' as to whether Buck would be violent in the future since he would face life in prison with no possibility of a romantic relationship with women if a death sentence was not applied.
As such, the Court found that Buck's attorneys had not provided their client with effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Constitution. The death sentence was reversed and sent back to the lower courts for a new sentencing hearing absent any mention of Buck's race as a factor to be considered when determining the likelihood of future violence.
The opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts, with Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joining.
Justice Thomas filed a dissent, with Justice Alito joining.
A copy of the opinion can be downloaded here.