In October 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Buck v. Davis, a Texas case in which defense counsel’s own expert testified that capital defendant Duane Buck was more likely to constitute a “future danger” because of his race. In Texas, a jury determination of future dangerousness is required before a death sentence can be imposed at the sentencing phase of trial. The odious racial assertions made during Mr. Buck’s trial captured national attention, and caused many to ask whether Mr. Buck was sentenced to death because he is black.
The controversial psychologist who made the racial assertions in Mr. Buck’s case, Walter Quijano, had testified for the prosecution in at least five other capital cases in Texas. In nearly all of those cases, however, the State eventually conceded error in introducing the racially charged testimony, and the defendants were granted new sentencing hearings. Because Mr. Buck’s own trial counsel had introduced Quijano’s testimony, however—and because prior post-conviction counsel for Mr. Buck had failed to raise the issue of trial counsel ineffectiveness on state habeas review—the Fifth Circuit denied Mr. Buck a Certificate of Appealability (“COA”). A COA is required in order for a prisoner to appeal a denial of habeas relief in a federal district court. In denying the COA, the Fifth Circuit found that Mr. Buck’s case was “at least unremarkable as far as [ineffective assistance] claims go,” and that Mr. Buck had failed to demonstrate the extraordinary circumstances that would have been needed to reopen his case.
The Supreme Court disagreed and, on February 22, 2017, issued a 6-2 opinion reversing the Fifth Circuit’s decision. The Court found that Mr. Buck had properly raised two questions for appeal before the Fifth Circuit, one substantive and one procedural. The first question was whether reasonable jurists could disagree that Mr. Buck had been denied his constitutional right to effective trial and post-conviction counsel, on account of the introduction of Mr. Quijano’s testimony by trial counsel and the subsequent failure to challenge its use by initial state post-conviction counsel. The second question was whether reasonable jurists could debate that the federal district court had improperly denied Mr. Buck’s motion to reopen his federal habeas case on account of these errors.
In this case, the Supreme Court explained, reasonable jurists could have disagreed with the district court’s findings on both questions. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the majority’s opinion; Justice Thomas issued a dissent joined by Justice Alito. The official question presented was “whether and to what extent the criminal justice system tolerates racial bias and discrimination.” The majority responded, “Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.”
On April 13, 2017, the Fifth Circuit sent the Mr. Buck’s back to district court with instructions to grant sentencing relief based on the United States Supreme Court’s ruling. Once the federal district court issues its order, Mr. Buck will return to Harris County where he may either be resentenced to life imprisonment or receive a new sentencing hearing.