When Duane Buck faced sentencing in 1997 for capital murder in Harris County, the jury was instructed to impose the death penalty if, and only if, they unanimously found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was likely to commit the act again – and they did.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that expert testimony, requested by Buck’s defense attorney, tainted the jury leading them to believe his race would cause him to kill again if they let him live.
Buck shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her friend in 1995, and for the last 14 years he has been challenging his death penalty sentence. He isn’t arguing innocence, but he is saying that testimony during the trial was unfairly prejudicial.
During the trial, Buck’s defense called Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist appointed by the presiding judge, to offer his opinion on the question facing the jury.
Quijano was tasked with determining if Buck would act violently again. After considering a number of statistics, including race, the doctor concluded that Buck was unlikely to be a future danger, however, he did say that statistically Buck was more likely than his Caucasian counterparts to act violently because he was black.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Quijano’s testimony and report, “said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution,” and continued, “This is a disturbing departure from the basic premise that our criminal law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”
In 1999, Quijano testified in another case saying that a defendant’s Hispanic heritage increased his future threat to the public, as well. But the state ended up vacating the state court judgement on that case when the defendant petitioned the court.
Texas and Oregon are the only two remaining states that allow juries to sentence solely based on, potential dangerousness.
Buck’s case was based on the fact that his attorney called Quijano to testify, knowing what both the report and Quijano would say.
“Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel,” read the court’s opinion. “We conclude that Buck has demonstrated both ineffective assistance of counsel, and an entitlement relief … The judgement of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The decision opens the possibility for Buck to continue to challenge his death sentence and seek another hearing.