The US Supreme Court on Wednesday offered at least a temporary reprieve to a Texas death row inmate, agreeing that racial bias affected his sentence after a psychologist testified he was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black.
The guilt of Duane Buck, 53, is not at issue — he was convicted of the brutal 1995 shooting deaths of his former lover and the man who was with her.
He was sentenced to die after the testimony of a defense psychologist that he was more likely to be a repeat offender because of his race during the penalty phase of his 1997 murder trial.
But by a 6-2 vote on Wednesday, the US high court found that Buck had received incompetent legal counsel, and ordered the case be sent back to a lower court for re-sentencing.
"Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court opinion.
"Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle," Roberts wrote.
Under Texas law, a person can be condemned to die only if the prosecutor can prove he or she represents a future danger to society.
Christina Swarns — the attorney arguing Buck's case before the top US court and who also represents the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — argued last October that the testimony of psychologist Walter Quijano "put the thumb heavily on the death scale" for her client.
"Today's decision sends a powerful message that no court can turn a blind eye to racial bias in the administration of criminal justice," Swarns said Wednesday.
"Given the persistence of racialized fears, stereotypes, and discrimination, this decision is as important to the country as it is to Duane Buck."
Kate Black, another attorney for Buck, said the ruling provides "hope that the ugliness of Mr Buck's tainted death sentence will soon be put behind us and he will receive a life sentence."
– 'Poisonous soil' –
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also hailed the ruling, saying that the death sentence had demonstrated "blatant racial bias" against Buck.
"Today's decision in Duane Buck's case reflects a welcome and necessary commitment by the Supreme Court to rejecting death sentences grown from the poisonous soil of racial discrimination," said David Cole, the ACLU's legal director.
"By ruling in Mr Buck's favor, the Supreme Court concluded that it is an 'extraordinary' error to allow a death sentence when there is a chance racial discrimination played a role in the death verdict," he added.
"This decision has broad implications, given the myriad ways racial bias determines who receives capital punishment in the United States."
Sentenced in Texas's Harris County, where nine percent of all US executions occur, a record in the country, Buck was seen by some anti-death penalty activists as another symbol of a judicial system poisoned by racial bias.
The Supreme Court's initial decision to take the case last year came amid an intense national debate over racism in law enforcement after a wave of police killings of black suspects.
The case was also notable because Swarns is black — a rare instance of an African American arguing a case before the nation's highest court.
The two justices who opposed Wednesday's majority ruling were Samuel Alito and the ultra-conservative Clarence Thomas, who is the only black justice on the court.