U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Race-Based Testimony Should Not Be Used in Sentencing

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision this week in the case Buck v. Davis. The opinion by Chief Justice Roberts condemned the use of race-based testimony in sentencing and marks another victory for civil rights advocates.

The facts underlying the case are gruesome. On July 30, 1995, Duane Buck went to his former girlfriend’s house and shot and killed both her and her new boyfriend in front of her children. He then went on to shoot his step-sister. The state of Texas appointed two lawyers to represent Buck in his case against the state. Buck was sentenced to death for the crimes he committed.

The trial took a strange turn, however, in the sentencing phase when Buck’s own attorney introduced racially motivated testimony by a defense expert. Although Buck had a history of abuse with ex-girlfriends, a psychologist determined that he was unlikely to be dangerous in the future. Instead of leaving it at that, Buck’s lawyers got testimony from another psychologist who testified that Buck was more likely to commit crimes in the future because he is black based on generalized criminal statistics. This evidence was admitted by Buck’s lawyers and it was determined that Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future, leading to his conviction. Buck then appealed his case and found that this psychologist had made similar race-related testimonies to convict others in the state of Texas. This violated the constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to skin color and undermined fairness in the judicial system.

In 2014 Buck went back to federal court to reopen his ruling on whether his counsel had violated Buck’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. He argued that his trial attorney’s decision to introduce the race-related opinion of the psychologist and the state’s admittance of it was not constitutional. Buck argued that the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60 (b)(6), to allow a district court to relieve a party from a final judgment for justified reasons, was relevant to his case. The district court denied Buck’s appeal, claiming it didn’t reach a threshold needed for appealing a final decision of a case after conviction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit also turned down Buck’s application for appeal.

Buck then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided to review the case. The merit of Buck’s argument, that his counsel violated the constitutional right to an effective attorney due to introduction of the psychologist’s opinion, was at issue. Buck argued that no defense attorney would have introduced this testimony as it was completely against his interests. He argued that this evidence made him more prosecutable, as Buck was then seen as dangerous to society. The evidence was even more suspect in that it tied the likelihood of future criminality solely to the color of his skin. The Supreme Court concluded that Buck received ineffective assistance during his trial and has entitlement to Rule 60(b)(6). The case was remanded to exclude evidence that the color of Buck’s skin made him somehow more deserving of execution.

Race should not be a factor in sentencing. Practices of race discrimination have no place in the judicial system where defendants should be judged based on their individual conduct rather than by the color of their skin.