U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Texas Death Penalty Case Challenging Racial Bias and Ineffective Lawyering

Today, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Buck v. Stephens, a death penalty case raising extraordinary issues of racial bias in capital punishment sentencing.  LDF, along with its co-counsel, the Texas Defender Service and Holland & Knight LLP, represents Duane Buck, an African-American death-sentenced prisoner in Texas, in this appeal. LDF is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which refused to review Mr. Buck’s case., in which he argued that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for knowingly introducing “expert” testimony that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black. Mr. Buck ultimately seeks a new, fair sentencing hearing.

“We are at a moment in history when Americans throughout the country are calling for the courts to ensure that the criminal justice system is administered fairly and without racial bias,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, Director-Counsel and President of LDF.  “Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision to ensure that Mr. Buck’s case receives full and fair review is not only constitutionally appropriate, it is an important step towards promoting greater public confidence in the integrity of our justice system.”

During his trial in 1997, Duane Buck’s own trial attorneys introduced testimony and a report from a psychologist stating that he was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black. Under Texas law, a death sentence can only be imposed if the prosecutor can prove “future dangerousness” to the jury. Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutor relied on this “expert” opinion proffered by the defense in arguing that the jury should find Mr. Buck a future danger. The jury agreed and Mr. Buck was condemned to death. On appeal, Mr. Buck’s initial appellate counsel never challenged Mr. Buck’s trial counsel’s conduct. Because of this succession of severely deficient lawyers, LDF argues that Mr. Buck’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial was violated.

Although the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas concluded that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel “recklessly exposed his client to the risks of racial prejudice and introduced testimony that was contrary to his client’s interests,” it nonetheless found that Mr. Buck’s case was not “extraordinary” enough to warrant further review. Subsequently, the Fifth Circuit refused to hear Mr. Buck’s appeal. LDF argues that the district court’s acknowledgment that racial prejudice can and does have a devastating impact on capital cases like Mr. Buck’s cannot be squared with its decision to let his tainted death sentence stand. Further, LDF contends that the facts and circumstances of Mr. Buck’s case are so egregious that review and reversal are required.

“It is hard to imagine a more extraordinary set of facts and circumstances than those at issue in Mr. Buck’s case,” said Christina Swarns, LDF’s Litigation Director and Lead Counsel for Mr. Buck.  “No one should be sentenced to death based on their race.”

LDF expects oral argument before the Supreme Court to be scheduled in the Fall or Winter of 2016.