Buck v. Davis

Buck v. Davis137 S. Ct. 759 (2017)

A Texas jury convicted Defendant-Petitioner Duane Buck of murder and sentenced him to death. At trial, his own defense attorney offered expert testimony that indicated Buck was more likely to act violently in the future because he is Black. Afterward, Buck challenged his sentence, arguing that the introduction of this expert’s testimony violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court agreed and granted Buck relief in a sharply worded opinion. Writing for six of eight Justices, Chief Justice Roberts berated Buck’s trial attorney for offering evidence that effectively said his client’s skin color increased his propensity for violence. Because the supposed expert purported to provide hard statistical evidence about race to guide an otherwise speculative inquiry, his testimony contaminated the jury’s determination and deprived Buck of a fair trial.

Moreover, the Court recognized that the immutability of race rendered this testimony especially potent, as the alleged association between Blackness and criminality triggered destructive stereotypes in the minds of jurors. The admission of this evidence “created something of a perfect storm” where the expert testimony, noxious racial prejudice, and the central question at sentencing converged to support a death sentence because the defendant happened to be Black. See Buck, 137 S. Ct. at 776. The Court also noted that the use of race to determine a criminal sanction “poisons public confidence” in the judiciary, as racial discrimination “is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.” Id. at 778 (citations omitted). The expert’s testimony therefore not only injured Buck as an individual defendant; it also offended the law as an institution, the democratic ideals reflected in American legal processes, and the community at large. See id.