OPINION: Steiker: Extraordinary Injustice in Texas

In a powerful opinion piece published on the National Law Journal website, Professor Jordan Steiker calls on the Supreme Court to “declare the obvious” and acknowledge the prejudicial role of race in the sentencing of Duane Buck, and for federal courts “to correct blatant errors in Texas capital cases.” Steiker’s new book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, co-written with his sister Carol Steiker, will be published next month. We publish this excerpt from Prof. Steiker’s opinion piece with the permission of the National Law Journal.

Extraordinary Injustice in Texas Death Penalty Case Needs SCOTUS Fix

OPINION: In Buck’s case, court has chance to declare that a death sentence can’t hinge on color.

by Jordan Steiker, September 19, 2016
The John Minor Wisdom courthouse, home of the 5th Circuit, in March 2005.
The John Minor Wisdom courthouse, home of the 5th Circuit, in March 2005.

In a state where shocking injustices are all too familiar, Duane Buck’s looming death sentence in Texas manages to stand out.

During Buck’s capital trial, his lawyers put an expert before the jury, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck was more likely to commit future violent crimes simply because he is black. Texas law requires a finding of future dangerousness to support a capital verdict. The prosecutors made sure on cross-examination that Quijano repeated his conclusion, and Buck was sentenced to death. That was in 1997.

Buck was not the only minority defendant sentenced to death in part based on Dr. Quijano’s racist testimony.

In 2000, in the case of Victor Saldano, another Texas death row inmate, then- Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn acknowledged that the “infusion of race as a factor for the jury to weigh in making its determination” violates an inmate’s right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin.

That concession led the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse Saldano’s death sentence. Cornyn issued a press release identifying six other capital cases with similar objectionable testimony by Quijano, including Buck’s. And Cornyn indicated that his office would not oppose relief for those inmates in federal court.

All five of the other inmates received relief from their death sentences. But when Buck got to federal court, seeking relief based on his trial lawyer’s ineptitude in allowing Quijano’s testimony, Texas shifted course, insisting that Buck’s death sentence should stand…

Read the full essay at the National Law Journal online.