The question of racial bias in the criminal justice system has become part of the national conversation, and on Wednesday the Supreme Court was the latest forum.
The court heard two cases that raise issues of discrimination and unfair treatment, and it seemed inclined in both to side with the challengers. But while the arguments prompted outraged statements from some of the justices, the cases also will probably produce only narrow procedural rulings.
One case involved a Texas death row inmate who says his trial was hopelessly compromised by prejudicial testimony by a state expert that black men are more likely to be violent and thus a future danger. The other featured a man who said he was targeted by police, beaten and called racial epithets, and then framed with fabricated evidence.
The outcome at the Supreme Court seemed most clear in the Texas case, which involved Duane Buck, now 53. In July 1995, Buck went to the home of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and fatally shot her while her children looked on. He also killed Gardner’s friend Kenneth Butler, and shot his own stepsister, who survived.
Buck was unrepentant when arrested, saying Gardner got what she deserved.
He was quickly convicted. What is being contested at the Supreme Court is what happened at the hearing into whether he deserved the death penalty.
To apply the death penalty in Texas, jurors must find a defendant presents a future danger. Buck’s own lawyers called to the stand Walter Quijano, a psychologist who had compiled a report listing race among the factors associated with violent behavior.
Quijano testified he thought Buck was unlikely to commit future violent attacks. But Quijano acknowledged he could “never rule out” the possibility.
Under cross-examination, prosecutors brought up Quijano’s report, and the witness suggested that being male and black would make someone more likely to be dangerous in the future. The jury took the report with them before returning to sentence Buck to death.
But Buck’s attempt to argue he deserved a new sentencing hearing because of ineffective counsel has hit a wall at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which governs the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“Duane Buck was condemned to death after his own court-appointed trial attorneys knowingly introduced an expert opinion that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black,” said Christina A. Swarns, director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is now representing Buck.
Even the court’s conservative justices seemed taken aback that Buck’s own lawyer had called Quijano to the stand.
“What occurred at the penalty phase of this trial is indefensible,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., one of the court’s most conservative members on criminal justice issues.
When Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller pointed out it did not take the jury long to decide that Buck deserved execution, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. interjected: “I’m not sure how the quickness of the determination helps you at all, when one response would be, well, they had this evidence that he was, by virtue of his race, likely to be dangerous, so they didn’t spend that much time on it.”
Quijano had testified at the trials of other death-row inmates, and all of them have subsequently received new penalty hearings. (All of them were resentenced to death, and some have been executed.) But the state has refused to give Buck a new penalty hearing.
Keller said Buck’s case was different because his lawyers had called Quijano to the stand, not prosecutors.
Some justices questioned why it would matter which side introduces discriminatory testimony.
Buck was stopped from asking for a new hearing on the ineffectiveness of counsel when the 5th Circuit denied him what is called a Certificate of Appeal. Kagan pointed out that the appeals court denies such petitions 60 percent of the time, compared with only 6 percent of the time in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which covers other Southern states where the death penalty is popular.
“It does suggest one of these two circuits is doing something wrong,” Kagan said.
In the other Supreme Court case, Elijah Manuel wants to sue members of the Joliet, Ill., police department. They stopped him and his brother in 2011, pulled Manuel from the car, called him a “street punk” and worse, and then punched and kicked him. They allegedly lied about pills Manuel was carrying, saying they tested positively as “ecstasy.”
Manuel was detained for 47 days after his first court appearance, before his public defender received a lab report that showed the pills were not controlled substances.
But his suit was barred by time limits under the precedents of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which is alone among the regional courts in its interpretation.
The justices struggled to divine exactly how Manuel’s constitutional rights were injured and how he might be able to bring a suit. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said at the heart of the case was a “corrupted legal process.”
The cases are Buck v. Davis and Manuel v. City of Joliet.