Supreme Court: Defendant’s Race Cannot Inform Sentencing

Supreme Court: Defendant’s Race Cannot Inform Sentencing

In October, we covered Buck v. Davis, a death penalty case that was being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. On Wednesday, February 22, the Court ruled in favor of convicted murderer and condemned prisoner Duane Buck and sent his case back to the appeals court. Procedurally, the case was a complicated mess, but it was ultimately about keeping racial bias from contributing to a man’s execution. As we noted at the time:

In the broadest sense, the moral and societal question facing the Court is whether in America a man may be sentenced to death based on evidence that is unconstitutionally tainted by racial stereotyping. But the actual technical and legal question before the Supreme Court is whether the Fifth Circuit erred in upholding a lower court’s refusal to grant Duane Buck the right to appeal a district court’s finding that his case is not sufficiently “extraordinary” for a federal court to intervene.

A 6-2 majority of the Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit was wrong to deny Buck the certificate required to make this appeal. The majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that Buck’s counsel was ineffective, noting that that the jury in his sentencing phase had been told by the expert called by Buck’s own lawyer that “that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution.”

Buck’s attorneys praised the ruling. “Today, the Supreme Court made clear that there is no place for racial bias in the American criminal justice system,” said Christina Swarns, litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “By acknowledging that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel’s injection of racially biased evidence into the capital sentencing proceedings was unconstitutional, the Court has reaffirmed the longstanding principle that criminal punishments—particularly the death penalty—cannot be based on immutable characteristics such as race.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Thomas wrote that the majority opinion “bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law” to achieve a desired outcome. Thomas argued that the testimony presented in Buck’s sentencing that being black made him more violence prone was not prejudicial.