Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Appeal Could Result in Serious Changes

An ineffective assistance of counsel case that has been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States might have a drastic impact on how a handful of states in the south handle appeals of capital cases.

Supreme Court Hears Buck v. Stephens

The case is Buck v. Stephens, which we covered in our legal blog back in early July, when the Supreme Court elected to hear it.

Duane Buck, a black man, was arrested and charged in the state of Texas for murdering his ex-girlfriend and the man he thought she was sleeping with. The case took a strange turn when, during trial, Buck’s own attorney called an expert psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, to the stand. Quijano told the jury that, because Buck was black and a man, he was more likely to commit a crime again if he was ever let out of jail, and the jury sentenced him to death.

One of the key factors that juries in Texas have to consider when recommending a death sentence is whether the defendant will be dangerous in the future, making Quijano’s statement particularly damning.

On October 5, 2016, the Justices of the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides in the case, a pivotal step in the process of deciding the case. Additionally, oral arguments provide an important opportunity to predict how the justices will rule in the case. Based on how the justices reacted to the case and the specific questions they asked the attorneys, it looks like the state of Texas and the federal courts there are going to be on the losing side.

Supreme Court Takes Issue With Denial of Sentencing Appeal

Since Buck’s conviction, Dr. Quijano has given similar testimony in six other cases in Texas. When this was brought to light in 2000, Texas decided to let all of the affected inmates appeal their sentence, except for Buck. When Buck challenged this decision, he was denied because it was Buck’s own attorney who elicited the damning testimony.

During oral argument, however, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that this just strengthened Buck’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, which would also allow him to appeal his sentence.

Entire Circuit Court Could Be Under Scrutiny

The decision to deny Buck’s appeal, however, might not be an isolated issue.

After a conviction, defendants can pursue a certificate of appealability, which allows them to lodge a habeas corpus appeal.

The Fifth Circuit – the federal appellate court that handles Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – is exceptionally stingy in issuing these certificates, refusing to grant them 60% of the time. Neighboring Circuit Courts refuse to grant them under ten percent of the time.

The Supreme Court may take this opportunity to make the entire Fifth Circuit review its appellate procedure.

The Federal Criminal Law Center

A conviction for a federal crime is not the end of the process. Appealing the sentence that you are given by the trial court is an option. Contact the Federal Criminal Law Center if you are considering such an endeavor.