SCOTUS hears racially charged death penalty case

Death Penalty | A convicted murderer claims his own lawyers brought racial bias to the case
by Mary Reichard
Posted 10/10/16, 12:59 pm

In its first week of oral arguments, the Supreme Court heard the case of Duane Buck, who murdered his ex-girlfriend and her friend in Houston in 1995, while her children watched. For that, Buck received the death penalty.

But Buck claims racial prejudice tainted the jury, based on evidence his own attorneys presented. In Texas, jurors can’t impose the death penalty unless they find the defendant poses a future danger.

A clinical psychologist whom the defense team hired to evaluate Buck said on cross-examination that African-Americans are more prone to violence than members of other races. Buck, now 53, says his lawyers hopelessly compromised his right to a fair trial. The justices seemed to agree.

“Doesn’t the fact that petitioner’s own counsel introduced this show how abysmal his representation was?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller. “What counsel would put that kind of evidence before a jury?”

Keller said the state did not defend the defense attorneys’ actions, but insisted that did not affect the ultimate outcome of the case. Buck likely would have received the death penalty anyway, based on his demeanor, criminal past, lack of remorse, and other factors.

Keller noted six other capital cases used the same psychologist as an expert witness and received retrials. Juries re-sentenced all those defendants to death. 

But Buck’s own lawyers brought in the psychologist, and he claims ineffective assistance of counsel violated his rights. 

“When the defendant’s own lawyer introduces this, the jury is going to say, ‘Well, it must be true. Even the defendant’s lawyer thinks that this is true,’” Justice Elena Kagan said.

The Supreme Court is divided on capital punishment, and the justices want to avoid a tie and rule decisively. This case seems an obvious outlier that has the sympathies of the majority of justices. As in all cases heard this term, rulings can come anytime but no later than the end of June. 

Listen to “Legal Docket” on the Oct. 10, 2016, episode of The World and Everything in It.