Supreme Court blocks Texas man's death sentence over racial bias

By Allen Cone  |  Feb. 22, 2017 at 1:24 PM
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Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck because of racial prejudice involving his defense attorney's expert witness.

The high court, in a 6-2 decision, ruled Black had ineffective counsel because his lawyers introduced testimony from a psychologist who said he was more likely to be a future danger because he was black and later didn't challenge it on appeal.

The decision reverses a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal's decision not to hear the case based on legal technicalities. Buck can return to a lower court in Houston and argue that he should have a new sentencing hearing.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, holding that Buck has "demonstrated both ineffective assistance of counsel" and has an "entitlement to relief."

"The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion," Roberts wrote.

Buck was scheduled to be executed Sept. 15, 2011, but the Supreme Court granted a stay.

Buck, 53, was convicted and sentenced to death after killing his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend, Kenneth Butler, after he and Gardner had an argument in Houston. Buck, who also shot his step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, killed Gardner outside the residence as her young children watched.

Buck's attorneys did not argue his guilt in the case.

Buck's own lawyers called a former prison psychiatrist, Walter Quijano, to assess whether he would be dangerous. "It's a sad commentary that minorities -- Hispanics and black people -- are over-represented in the criminal justice system," he said.

The court noted: "Although Dr. Quijano ultimately concluded that Buck was unlikely to be a future danger, his report also stated that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black."

In the ruling, Roberts wrote: "When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant's race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record," Roberts said in the opinion. "Some toxins can be deadly in small doses."

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the opinion.

Thomas said there was ample evidence to justify the death sentence, including the crime's heinousness and Buck had no remorse.

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