WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new court hearing for a black Texas prison inmate whose death sentence may have been tainted by disturbing references to race.
Lawyers for inmate Duane Buck said the result of the court's 6-2 decision is that Buck must either be given a sentence of life in prison or a new sentencing hearing.
"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," Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion.
Buck had tried for years to get federal courts to look at his claim that his rights were violated when jurors were told by a defense expert witness that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.
In Texas death penalty trials, one of the "special issues" jurors must consider when deciding punishment is whether the defendant they've convicted would be a future danger.
Roberts wrote that the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano "was potent evidence. Dr. Quijano's testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype — that of black men as 'violence prone."
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. "Having settled on a desired outcome, the court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it," Thomas said.
Buck was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and another man in 1995. His case was among six in 2000 that then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn in a news release said needed to be reopened because Quijano's statements were racially charged. In the other five cases, new punishment hearings were held and each convict again was sentenced to death. Cornyn, a Republican, is now the state's senior U.S. senator.
Buck's lawyers contended the attorney general, by then Cornyn's successor Greg Abbott, broke a promise by contesting his case. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that it could find nothing in the case record to indicate the state made an error or promised not to oppose any move to reopen the case. Abbott now is the state's governor.
One difference in Buck's case is that Buck's own lawyer, not the prosecutor, elicited Quijano's testimony. Texas said the difference was reason enough to rule against Buck.
Buck's lawyers had argued on appeal that the trial lawyer's work was so poor that it violated the Constitution's guarantee of competent counsel.
Roberts said that when race is a factor in jury deliberations, it does not matter "which party first broached the subject."
The case is Buck v. Davis, 15-8049.