Supreme Court Grants Relief to Texas Death Row Inmate Duane BuckFebruary 22, 2017

The United States Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death in Texas after evidence from an expert was presented that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black.

Duane Buck was charged with capital murder in Houston, Texas, in 1997. He was too poor to hire a lawyer, so the judge appointed two defense lawyers, one of whom is best known for losing capital cases.

Under Texas law, the death penalty can be imposed only if every juror agrees that the defendant is likely to be dangerous in the future. In Mr. Buck's case, prosecutors lacked strong evidence to prove future dangerousness, until Mr. Buck's appointed lawyers called an expert witness who testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous because he is black. The prosecutor emphasized this false and pernicious racial stereotype during his cross-examination and in asking the jury to impose the death penalty. Jurors seemed conflicted about the appropriate sentence, but after reviewing the expert's report, they sentenced Mr. Buck to death.

The same expert testimony was presented in six other cases, and in 2000, the State of Texas agreed that new sentencing trials must be held in all seven cases. But it reversed course in Mr. Buck's case, arguing that his death sentence should stand because the "race-as-dangerousness" testimony was introduced by defense counsel rather than by prosecutors.

Today, the Supreme Court rejected the State's argument, holding that "'it is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system' . . . whether the prosecution or ineffective defense counsel initially injected race into the proceeding."

The Court held that Mr. Buck's constitutional right to counsel was violated when his attorneys gave the jury expert evidence that "said, in effect, that the color of Buck's skin made him more deserving of execution." Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded, "No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client."

The Court found that the expert's testimony "appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as 'violence prone,'" and it prejudiced Mr. Buck by enabling jurors to "mak[e] a decision on life or death on the basis of race."

That Mr. Buck "may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race," the Court continued, "is 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 went on to say that "[r]elying on race to impose a criminal sanction 'poisons public confidence'" in the judicial system and "injures not just the defendant, but 'the law as an institution, . . . the community at large, and . . . the democratic ideal reflected in the processes of our courts.'"