The aspiration of many in the legal field is to assure that the U.S. criminal justice system is blind; blind to the financial circumstances of defendants, to a person’s gender, sexuality and race. Decisions about guilt or innocence should be based entirely on facts, not influenced by stereotypes or assumptions based on a person’s background. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court recently reiterated its clear agreement and, in doing so, allowed a death row inmate in Texas an opportunity to appeal his death sentence after determining that he may have been harmed by race-based stereotyping.
The case involves a man named Duane Buck. Buck, who is black, was convicted in 1995 of murdering two people, including his ex-girlfriend who he shot in front of her children. He was also convicted of shooting a third person, his stepsister. During the sentencing phase of his trial, a psychologist named Walter Quijano was called on by the defense to testify about Buck’s risk of future violence.
Though Quijano first said that Buck posed little threat to society if he remained in prison, he went on to say that because Buck was black he would be more likely to commit future crimes. When prospectors crossed-examined the psychologist, he stated that black and Hispanic people are more likely to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. Buck was eventually sentenced to death.
Though the testimony of the psychologist is clearly based on race and racial stereotypes, which is problematic enough, it proved especially damaging to Buck given that the question of Buck’s future risk of violence would determine whether he would be sentenced to the death penalty. Under Texas law, a jury is allowed to impose a death sentence only in cases where it finds that a defendant is likely to commit acts of violence in the future. The psychologist played right into this fear, seemingly signing Buck’s death warrant.
Surprisingly, Quijano gave similar testimony in other criminal cases in Texas. Back in 2000, the Texas attorney general said that there had been problems associated with some of Quijano’s testimony and that cases that he was involved in would need to be reassessed. Later that year, the Supreme Court vacated a conviction against another defendant who Quijano had claimed that his Hispanic ancestry increased the odds that he would be a danger to society. Though other defendants were given new sentencing hearings, Buck was not.
Buck and his new attorney appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that Buck’s sentence was inappropriately influenced by the racist testimony of the psychologist. The Supreme Court was ultimately convinced, voting 6-2 in favor of allowing Buck to appeal his death sentence. The majority said that the case was an example of one where a lower court improperly made a decision on the basis of race. Another justice said that the introduction of race as a predictor of violence was “indefensible”.
Though Buck has done enough to win an appeal, there are still those who disagree, including Justice Clarence Thomas, the only black member of the Supreme Court. Thomas, in his dissent, said that the lower courts got Buck’s case right the first time, arguing that the jury had sufficient reason beyond the psychologist’s testimony to sentence Buck to death. According to Thomas, the heinousness of the crime and Buck’s lack of remorse were all the jury needed to make its decision and hand down the death penalty.
Source: Article published at NPR.org.