Criminal Law

Buck v. Davis

In Buck v. Davis, the Supreme Court considered whether an African American man who was sentenced to death following a hearing that included racially biased testimony from an expert witness should be allowed to appeal a district court’s refusal to undo the dismissal of his habeas corpus petition.

Case Summary

Under Texas law, a person may be sentenced to death in lieu of life imprisonment only if a jury decides that he or she is likely to commit future acts of violence that would be a continuing threat to society. Duane Buck was convicted of murder in 1997. During Buck’s sentencing hearing, his own attorney called as an expert witness a psychologist who testified that Buck was more likely to be violent in the future because he is black. The prosecutor reemphasized this racially biased assertion on cross-examination, and the psychologist’s written report was requested by the jury during its deliberations. Buck was sentenced to death. Although he later filed a federal habeas corpus petition challenging his sentence, a procedural rule then in place barred him from arguing that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing hearing. After new Supreme Court precedent removed that procedural obstacle, Buck returned to the district court that had dismissed his petition and requested the opportunity to show that he was denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. Buck based his request on Rule 60(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows courts to grant relief from a final order for equitable reasons if “extraordinary circumstances” are present.

The district court concluded, however, that neither the racially biased testimony offered by Buck’s own counsel, nor the other unique facts of his case, amounted to “extraordinary circumstances.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit then prevented Buck from appealing this decision by denying him a certificate of appealability, stating that his claims were “unremarkable.” In June 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

On August 4, 2016, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Buck. Our brief demonstrated that the “expert” testimony introduced at Buck’s sentencing hearing injected into the proceedings an enduring racial stereotype that holds a unique power in this nation. The stereotype of the violent black male is deeply entrenched in American society, having been perpetuated for generations in political discourse, scientific conjecture, and popular entertainment, all of which have long portrayed black men as inherently dangerous and primitive. Moreover, as our brief discussed, this pernicious stereotype has a demonstrable effect on perceptions and judgments. As documented by an array of social science research, the latent association of African Americans with violence continues to distort perceptions of reality and result in racially biased assessments—and the risk of such bias is especially acute in death penalty proceedings. The Constitution, however, forbids racial stereotypes from affecting the administration of justice, expressly guaranteeing the right to an impartial jury and the equal protection of the laws. Indeed, as our brief explained, the Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments ratified after the Civil War repeatedly acted to ensure the existence of impartial juries that would fairly apply the law regardless of race. Thus, the endorsement of a powerful racial stereotype during a capital sentencing hearing is incompatible with the nation’s constitutional commitment to race-blind jury decision-making, and is precisely the sort of “extraordinary circumstance” that justifies relief under Rule 60(b)(6).

The Court heard oral argument on October 5, 2016. On February 22, 2017, the Court held, 6-2, that Buck had received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The Court recognized, as we explained in our brief, that the testimony Buck’s counsel elicited from his own expert witness injected into the proceedings an enduring racial stereotype that has a demonstrable effect on perceptions and judgments. The Court further recognized that “[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” and that “[d]ispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.

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