In their recent listing of cases that they will be hearing in the upcoming term, the Supreme Court of the United States showed that they were taking on a pair of death penalty cases from the state of Texas. The choice of these cases shows an increasing focus on the death penalty by the Supreme Court, which will likely result in changes for future death penalty cases.
One of these cases, Buck v. Stephens, has to do with racial discrimination during the sentencing process, and could have a huge impact on not only the sentencing procedure, but also on the ability of criminal defendants to get new attorneys for their appeals after their trial attorney was ineffective.
What Happened in Buck v. Stephens
Duane Buck, a black man, was arrested and charged for the 1995 murder of his girlfriend and one of her friends. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to either life in jail or a death sentence. In determining which of these two would be the sentence, the jury was to consider, among other factors, whether Mr. Buck would be dangerous in the future.
Mr. Buck’s attorney called an expert witness, a clinical psychologist named Dr. Walter Quijano, to the stand for the sentencing determination. However, one of the things that Dr. Quijano said was that a defendant’s race and sex were factors in whether they would be dangerous in the future. Men, he said, were more likely to be dangerous than women were, and blacks were more likely to be dangerous than other races.
The jury found, unanimously, that there was a probability that Mr. Buck would commit criminal acts of violence in the future, and that he would be a threat to society. They sentenced Mr. Buck to death.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
One of the claims that Mr. Buck has raised on his appeals is that his trial attorney was ineffective in that he knowingly called Dr. Quijano to the stand. The Texas courts, however, have repeatedly denied his claims, claiming that he has not met the required standards to lodge an appeal. This is despite the fact that the Texas Attorney General’s office had subsequently called Dr. Quijano to the stand in later cases to have him make the same statements that he had made against Mr. Buck, and has since admitted that doing so was improper.
The Federal Criminal Law Center
The case of Buck v. Stephens will likely have an impact on both the propriety of racial statements during the sentencing portion of a capital punishment trial, as well as on the process of showing the ineffectiveness of trial counsel. The latter issue is the most likely to get extensive treatment by the Supreme Court, in large part because of the heightened standards that the Texas courts used for Mr. Buck’s case, but also because a ruling on the process would have a far-reaching impact.
As a group that handles appeals often, the Federal Criminal Law Center is paying close attention to the case, as it can greatly impact our clients in the future. Contact us online if you need legal representation for a federal charge, or want to appeal a past conviction.