WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a convicted murderer in Texas who is seeking to avoid execution after his own trial lawyer called an expert witness who testified the man was more apt to be dangerous in the future because he is black.
The court ruled 6-2 that death row inmate Duane Buck, 53, should get a shot at a new sentence in a state that has executed more people than any other since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States four decades ago.
Buck was convicted of fatally shooting his former girlfriend while her young children watched, as well as another man, during a 1995 argument in Houston. A police officer testified that after being detained Buck laughed and said, “The bitch got what she deserved.”
Clinical psychologist Walter Quijano, testifying as a defense witness on the likelihood of Buck committing future offenses, said black and Hispanic people are more likely to be dangerous because they are “over-represented” among violent offenders.
Writing for the court, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts said the testimony was clearly prejudicial to Buck, even if it was only a small part of the proceeding.
“Some toxins are deadly in small doses,” Roberts wrote.
Roberts said the lower court’s refusal to allow Buck to challenge his sentence was “a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”
“Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle,” Roberts added.
Conservative justices Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black member, and Samuel Alito dissented.
Death penalty opponents have pointed to statistics that show black defendants to be far more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to die, and argue that racial bias endures in the American criminal justice system and in death penalty cases in particular.
Buck was seeking reversal of a 2015 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denying his request for an appeal.
Texas in 2002 allowed six other death row inmates convicted in trials in which Quijano had given similar testimony to get new sentencing hearings but objected in Buck’s case.
All six of the prisoners were again sentenced to death.
The office of the Texas Attorney General was not immediately available for comment.