October, Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court seemed set to side with a black Texas death row inmate seeking to avoid execution after his own trial lawyer called an expert witness who testified the man was more likely to be dangerous in the future because of his race.
Overseeing a death penalty case during the first week of its new term, the Supreme Court heard arguments over whether convicted murderer Duane Buck, 53, should get a chance at obtaining a new sentence in a state that executes more death row inmates than any other.
Duane Buck was convicted of shooting to death his former girlfriend while her young children looked on, as well as another man, during a 1995 argument in Houston. A police officer testified that after being detained Buck said with a laugh, "The bitch got what she deserved."
Opponents to the death penalty have pointed to statistics showing black defendants are far more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to die, and argue that racial bias endures in the American criminal justice system and in death penalty cases in particular.
Justices on both sides of the court's ideological divide, including conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared willing to rule in favor of Buck, although it was unclear how detailed and clear the decision would be.
Buck's lawyers told the eight justices Buck should get a chance to argue for a new sentencing hearing because testimony by the expert witness called by own lawyer could have influenced the jury in sentencing deliberations.
Testifying on the likelihood of Buck committing future offenses, Clinical psychologist Walter Quijano, said black and Hispanic people are more likely to be a danger because they are "over-represented" among violent offenders.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who previously has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the death penalty because of the way it is carried out, appeared to suggest the case highlighted his argument.
Buck is seeking reversal of a 2015 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prohibiting his request for an appeal.
A slim ruling in Buck's favor would allow him to raise his claim on appeal in a lower court without the justices deciding the merits of whether he should get a new sentencing hearing. Roberts said such a ruling would be a "pretty straightforward" way to resolve the case.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito called the defense lawyer's decision to introduce Quijano's testimony "indefensible" although he appeared concerned that a broad ruling favoring Buck would make it too easy for defendants to challenge convictions or sentences.
Buck's step sister Phyllis Taylor, who he also shot during the incident, supports his appeal and was present at the court.
A ruling is due by the end of June, 2017.