The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, who alleged that race played an improper role in his death sentence. In September, the court issued a rare stay of execution while it considered the merits of the case. Monday’s action lifts the stay and allows the state to set a new execution date.
In 1995, Buck, who is African-American, was convicted of killing two people and shooting a third. During the sentencing phase of his trial, psychologist Walter Quijano was called by the defense. Although Quijano testified that Buck would not pose a continuing threat to society if incarcerated, he also testified that blacks and Hispanics are statistically more likely than whites to commit future crimes.
When the prosecutor cross-examined Quijano, the psychologist testified that being black “increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons.” Buck was ultimately sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Four years later, Texas death row inmate Victor Saldano appealed his case to the Supreme Court, alleging that race was improperly used in the sentencing phase of his trial, and citing similar testimony by the same psychologist. Texas admitted that the use of race in sentencing “seriously undermined the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial process.”
A year later, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn publicly stated that he had identified six other cases, include Buck’s, where psychologist Quijano had testified during the sentencing phase and improperly mentioned race. New sentencing hearings were ordered in five of those cases, but not in Buck’s, and Buck appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Monday, however, the high court refused to intervene in Buck’s case. In rejecting his plea, three justices — Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer — wrote that no new trial was necessary because it was the defense that introduced racial statements. In all the other cases, they said, the psychologist, even when called by the defense, discussed race only in response to prosecution questions.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. They said that in Buck’s case the prosecution still benefited from the racial statements by asking the psychologist about it.
Despite the differences cited by both the majority and dissenting justices, the end result for all of the defendants in these cases is the same. All of those who got new sentencing hearings were sentenced to death again.