The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of a black inmate on death row in Texas who contends that racially biased testimony tainted his sentence.
On Wednesday, the nation’s highest court appeared to side with inmate Duane Buck.
Most of the justices expressed concern that Buck’s own defense lawyer, not the prosecutors, introduced the racially charged testimony during his trial.
“It would seem more prejudicial when the defendant’s own lawyer brings it up. The jury would probably think, then it must be true,” said Justice Elena Kagan.
During the sentencing phase of Buck’s trial in 1997, clinical psychologist Walter Quijano, testifying on the likelihood of Buck committing future offenses, said black and Hispanic people are more likely to be dangerous because they are overrepresented among violent offenders.
In Texas death penalty trials, one of the special issues jurors must consider when deciding punishment is whether the defendant they’ve convicted would be a future danger.
Buck’s current lawyers said in court papers that the “alleged link between race and future dangerousness has been proven false.”
Buck’s lawyers are not challenging his conviction, but they are seeking another chance to argue that he should not get the death penalty.
The only issue in arguments at the high court appeared to be whether to throw out Buck’s sentence altogether and order a new sentencing hearing. The court also could instruct lower courts to decide whether the death sentence can stand.
Buck, now 53, does not dispute that he shot and killed another man and his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, 32, about a week after breaking up with her in 1995. He also shot his stepsister, who survived.
Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 1,437 people have been put to death nationwide, with Texas carrying out the most executions at 537.
Historically, black inmates have held an outsized place on death row, even though nationally, whites greatly outnumber African Americans.