Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Texas death row inmate Wednesday morning, agreeing that Duane Buck’s case was prejudiced by an expert trial witness who claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.
Buck was convicted and sentenced to death after gunning down two people, including his ex-girlfriend, more than 20 years ago.
The high court ruled 6-2 to reverse the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to not hear the case based on legal technicalities and remand the case back to the courts. Buck’s attorneys said in a statement that the ruling means Buck “will either be resentenced to life imprisonment, or receive a new sentencing hearing untainted by racial bias.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which ruled that Buck had an incompetent trial attorney — because it was the defense that brought forth the psychologist who provided the racially biased testimony. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record,” Roberts said in the opinion. “Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.”
The Texas Attorney General's Office said it was "disappointed with the Court’s ruling, but await[s] further proceedings,” according to a statement from communications director Marc Rylander.
In July 1995, Buck shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her friend in Houston in front of her children. When Buck was arrested several minutes later, officers said he was “upbeat and laughing,” according to court testimony. One officer claimed Buck told him, “The bitch got what she deserved.”
For Buck to be sentenced to death for the murders, jurors had to unanimously agree that he would present a future danger if he were allowed to serve a life sentence. During this phase of the trial, the defense presented Dr. Walter Quijano, who reported that blacks are statistically more prone to violence.
The prosecutor in Buck's case, now-state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, asked Quijano about his report on cross-examination: “You have determined that...the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?” Quijano answered, “Yes.”
Huffman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In arguments before the court in October, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller said Buck’s appeal should not be considered because it wasn’t the state who presented the testimony. The high court ruled instead that Buck had ineffective and incompetent counsel, with Roberts saying, “no competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client.”
The court also ruled that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals incorrectly denied Buck a chance to reopen his case.
In his dissent, Thomas wrote that to get to the ruling, the court “bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law.”
In oral arguments, Keller said it was too late for Buck to file the appeals, which is what lower courts had previously ruled as well. There is generally a specific time in the capital appellate process when certain claims, such as ineffective counsel, can be raised.
Because the high court ruled both on the 5th Circuit's decision and on the ineffective counsel claims, the decision invalidates Buck’s death sentence and sets into motion the process for him receiving a new one. The case will first go back to lower federal courts but eventually will end up back in Harris County, said Kate Black, one of Buck's attorneys who works at Texas Defender Service.
“Given that Mr. Buck has been a model prisoner for over 20 years, it is highly likely that in a hearing free of racial bias, jurors today would sentence him to life in prison,” Black said in a statement.
Read more about Duane Buck's case: