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Supreme Court Rules Racial Testimony Influenced Inmate's Death Sentence


Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Texas death row inmate. Duane Buck was sentenced to death back in 1997, but today the justices said that sentence was tainted by racial prejudice because Buck's own lawyer brought on an expert witness who testified that he was more likely to be a danger in the future because he was black. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Duane Buck shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in front of her three children while she begged for her life, and he shot and killed the man he thought she was sleeping with. While the jury easily convicted Buck, it had trouble deciding whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. The jurors were out for two days, focusing apparently on the question of dangerousness. Under Texas law, a jury cannot sentence a defendant to death unless it unanimously concludes he poses a future danger.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, Buck's own lawyer put on the witness stand psychologist Walter Quijano, who testified that statistically, Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black. The prosecution then drove that point home during cross-examination.

Three years later, a death penalty case involving this same psychologist and similar testimony went to the Supreme Court. Texas conceded error in the case and found six more, including Buck's, in which psychologist Quijano had testified, linking race to violence. The state attorney general pledged to allow sentencing appeals in all of those cases. It delivered on that promise in five but reneged in Buck's case after a new attorney general, now Governor Greg Abbott, took office.

Buck still tried to appeal his sentence, but he lost. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Houston refused to grant what's called a certificate of appeal. The Supreme Court has rebuked the 5th more than once before over its refusal to grant these certificates in capital cases, and today the justices, by a 6 to 2 vote, slapped the circuit court hard in the Buck case.

Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the 5th Circuit was wrong in denying the certificate of appeal and wrong on the merits of the appeal as well. Roberts said that the psychologist's testimony appealed to a particularly noxious strain of racial stereotype, namely that of black men as violence-prone. The fact that it was the defendant's own lawyer who introduced this testimony to begin with is proof that Buck was denied the effective assistance of counsel, said the chief justice.

Roberts rejected the lower court's conclusion that the effect of the racial testimony was so small as to be trifling. Relying on race to impose a criminal sanction, he said, poisons public confidence in the judicial process, injures not just the defendant but the law as an institution and the community at large. Dissenting from the decision were the court's only black justice, Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito. They said the appeal should not have been permitted to go forward.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.