The U.S. Supreme Court gave a Texas death row inmate a chance to avoid execution on Wednesday, with Chief Justice John Roberts denouncing the “noxious strain of racial prejudice” that infected the case when a defense witness testified the man was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black.
The 6-2 ruling handed a victory to convicted murderer Duane Buck, 53, who had challenged his death sentence in a state that long has led the nation in executions, citing the racially biased testimony by a psychologist called by his own trial lawyer.
Buck’s lawyers said the ruling, authored by the conservative Roberts, paved the way for either for a life sentence or a new sentencing hearing.
“Today’s decision sends a powerful message that no court can turn a blind eye to racial bias in the administration of criminal justice,” said Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of Buck’s lawyers.
“Given the persistence of racialized fears, stereotypes, and discrimination, this decision is as important to the country as it is to Duane Buck,” Swarns added.
Buck was convicted of fatally shooting his former girlfriend while her young children watched, as well as another man, during a 1995 argument in Houston. A police officer testified that after being detained Buck laughed and said, “The bitch got what she deserved.”
Clinical psychologist Walter Quijano testified as a defense witness during the sentencing phase of the trial on the key issue of Buck’s likelihood of committing future offenses. Quijano said race was among the “statistical factors” he weighed in deciding whether a person posed an ongoing danger because it is “a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are over-represented in the criminal justice system.”
A prosecutor then asked Quijano if he had determined that “the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons.” Quijano replied: “Yes.”
“Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice,” Roberts added.
Roberts said a lower court’s refusal to allow Buck to challenge his sentence was “a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”
The court found Buck’s trial lawyer violated Buck’s right under the U.S. Constitution to be represented by competent counsel. Buck’s current lawyers said the supposed link between race and future dangerousness has been proven false.