Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Supreme Court vacates death sentence over racist expert testimony

We may have a conservative Supreme Court, but it will not put up with blatant acts of racial discrimination in criminal trials. In this case, the justices find that the lawyer of a man who senselessly murdered two people was deprived of effective legal assistance because his lawyer hired a quack expert who said during the death penalty phase of that case that defendant was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black.

The case is Buck v. Davis, decided by the short-staffed Supreme Court on February 22. A few years ago when I was fighting off a certiorari petition, I read a great book called Deciding to Decide, which talks about what cases the Supreme Court likes to take, and why it takes them. You may regard a book like this as a one-way ticket to snoozeville, but it was actually fascinating because the authors were able to speak to many Supreme Court justices and their clerks about the process. (Everyone was quoted with anonymity). One theme was the Court was reluctant to ever take ineffective assistance of counsel cases, for whatever reason.

The Court took this one, though. There is nothing sympathetic about the defendant in this case. Since  the Supreme Court rules in his favor, for now he does not get the death penalty. But he will most likely spend the rest of his life in jail, and it's probably not the country club atmosphere like Orange is the New Black, where inmates create meaningful friendships and plot against each other when the guards aren't looking.

Writing for a 6-2 majority, Chief Justice Roberts writes that the expert's testimony "appealed to a powerful racial stereotype -- that of black men as 'violence prone.'" This created a "perfect storm" as his testimony in the capital sentencing phase addressed the central issue: will the defendant wreak havoc on society again? And the witness also had impeccable credentials, having earned a doctorate and having testified in 70 capital murder cases. "Reasonable jurors might well have valued his opinion concerning the central question before them." This testimony did not have a de minimus effect on the jury, the Court says. In putting on a witness like this, Buck's lawyer was constitutionally ineffective, and Buck gets another chance to avoid the Chair.

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