SCOTUS Hears Arguments in Death Penalty Case

The arguments were heard in Buck v. Davis.

— -- The Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in Buck v. Davis, a death penalty case that raises important questions about racial bias in sentencing.

Duane Buck was convicted of murder in Texas. At his sentencing hearing, his lawyer called an expert witness who testified that he was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he was black. The jury ultimately sentenced Buck to death.

Buck filed a habeas petition challenging his lawyer’s decision to introduce the bias testimony, and the district court denied it. The Supreme Court then changed the law in a way that made it easier to bring claims like Buck’s -– so he tried to “reopen” his petition. The district court found there were no “extraordinary circumstances” that would justify reopening the case, and the Fifth Circuit denied a “Certificate of Appealability” –- essentially permission to appeal the district court’s decision.

Buck’s attorney, Christina Swarns, told the Justices today that “Duane Buck was condemned to death after his own court-appointed trial attorneys knowingly introduced an expert opinion that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black. This evidence encouraged the sentencing jury to make its critical future dangerousness decision which was a prerequisite for a death sentence.”

Swarns argued the lower court, “ignored critical facts” when ruling the case did not establish “extraordinary circumstances” – “the Fifth Circuit doesn’t engage at all around the central question here about the -- the critical role of race."

Justice Stephen Breyer also questioned why Texas did not view the racially biased testimony as a reason for granting a certificate of appealability. “It could have been a substantial factor.” Breyer later asked “is there some good reason why this person shouldn't have been able to reopen his case? I mean, that's the question. What's the reason?”

Justice Ruth Ginsburg seemed to suggest that the lower court erred for not considering Buck’s argument -- that his right to effective counsel had been violated: “what counsel would put that kind of evidence before a jury? What competent counsel would put that evidence before a jury?”

Justice Samuel Alito acknowledged his disgust about what happened during the sentencing trial: “what occurred at the penalty phase of this trial is indefensible.” But he took issue with some of petitioner’s arguments: “But what concerns me is what the implications of your argument would be for all 13 of the other prisoners who -- let's say they're not even capital cases, but they have -- they want now to raise some kind of ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.”

The Justices also focused on the standards used by the Fifth Circuit in deciding whether to grant Certificates of Appealability.

Sotomayor suggested the Fifth Circuit may be going too far, “They are supposed to decide whether to grant COA or not on whether the questions are serious or not, debatable, not decide the merits. I know it can appear a fine line in some situations, but how do you justify saying that this is not debatable?”