13:18, February 22 463 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-22 13:18:12
Supreme court orders new hearing over inmate's ‘racially tainted’ death sentence

The US supreme court on Wednesday ordered a new court hearing for a black Texas prison inmate who claims improper testimony about his race tainted his death sentence.

The justices voted 6-2 in favor of inmate Duane Buck. Buck had tried for years to get federal courts to look at his claim that his rights were violated when jurors were told by a defense expert witness that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion that the federal appeals court that heard Buck’s case was wrong to deny him a hearing.

“There is a reasonable probability that Buck was sentenced to death in part because of his race,” Roberts said in his opinion. “This is a disturbing departure from the basic premise that our criminal law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”

In Texas death penalty trials, one of the “special issues” that jurors must consider when deciding punishment is whether the defendant they’ve convicted would be a future danger.

Roberts wrote that the testimony of Dr Walter Quijano “was potent evidence. Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype – that of black men as ‘violence prone’.”

Roberts added: “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. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. “Having settled on a desired outcome, the court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it,” Thomas said.

Buck was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and another man in 1995. His case was among six in 2000 that Texas’s then attorney general, John Cornyn, in a news release said needed to be reopened because Quijano’s statements were racially charged. In the other five cases, new punishment hearings were held and each convict again was sentenced to death. Cornyn, a Republican, is now the state’s senior US senator.

Buck’s lawyers contended that the attorney general, by then Cornyn’s successor Greg Abbott, broke a promise by contesting his case. But the fifth US circuit court of appeals said that it could find nothing in the case record to indicate the state made an error or promised not to oppose any move to reopen the case. Abbott is now the state’s governor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report