U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies the Standard for Granting Certificates of Appealablity in the Federal Courts and Addresses Racist Testimony in Capital Sentencing Cases | Speaker Law
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U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies the Standard for Granting Certificates of Appealablity in the Federal Courts and Addresses Racist Testimony in Capital Sentencing Cases

Posted on Thursday, May 17, 2018

Buck was convicted of capital murder for killing his ex-girlfriend and her friend in 1995. At the time, Texas law required a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was likely to commit future acts of violence that made him a continuing danger to society before imposing the death penalty. Buck’s defense counsel introduced the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Quijano, who had prepared a report that ultimately concluded Buck was unlikely to commit future acts of violence. However, Dr. Quijano’s report also included an analysis of certain factors that he believed to weigh on a person’s predisposition to commit future violence. One of those factors was race, and Dr. Quijano’s conclusion as to this factor was that African Americans, like Buck, had an increased probability of acting violently.


After Buck was sentenced, other cases in which Dr. Quijano had testified that a person’s race predisposed them to violence were appealed. The Texas Attorney General identified six cases, including Buck’s, where Dr. Quijano’s racially inappropriate testimony was relied upon for sentencing in capital cases. In all but Buck’s case, the Attorney General admitted that it was error to use this testimony and consented to resentencing of the defendants. The Attorney General distinguished Buck’s case from the other five because it was Buck’s counsel that called Dr. Quijano to the stand in his case, while the prosecution had been the one to call the doctor in the other cases.

Buck then filed his second state habeas petition (his first state habeas petition had been denied), which alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective because he introduced Dr. Quijano’s damaging testimony. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, denied this petition because Buck had failed to raise this issue in his first state habeas petition. Buck then filed a federal habeas petition again alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, which the District Court also denied because he had failed to raise the issue previously.

After the District Court dismissed Buck’s federal habeas petition, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two new cases, the combined effect of which was to relax the standard under which Buck could seek review of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim that he had failed to raise in his first habeas petition. Based on the change in law, Buck sought to reopen his federal habeas case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6), which allows courts to relieve a party from a final judgment for any reason the court believes justifies relief. This has been interpreted to mean that the moving party must show extraordinary circumstances. Buck argued that extraordinary circumstances existed in his case because of the change in law and the fact that his trial attorney introduced expert testimony that inappropriately linked race to violence. The District Court, however, found that Buck failed to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances that would warrant review of his unpreserved claim. Furthermore, it found that he failed to show that his trial attorney was ineffective for calling Dr. Quijano to the stand, because any impact the racist testimony had on the jury was de minimis when weighed against all the other evidence.

Buck then sought a certificate of appealability from the Fifth Circuit, seeking to appeal the District Court’s decision denying his Rule 60(b)(6) motion. When reviewing applications for appeal, the Fifth Circuit must determine whether the claim is reasonably debatable. In making this determination, the Court only needs to find that reasonable jurists could disagree with the District Court’s ruling that Buck failed to show extraordinary circumstances. The Fifth Circuit ultimately denied Buck’s certificate of appealability because it found that Buck failed to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances that would justify relief for his Rule 60(b)(6) motion.

In Buck v. Davis, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fifth Circuit should have granted Buck’s certificate of appealability for the District Court’s denial of his Rule 60(b)(6) motion. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fifth Circuit should not have decided whether Buck had actually demonstrated extraordinary circumstances; rather, it was limited to deciding whether reasonable jurists could debate the issue of whether Buck showed extraordinary circumstances. The Supreme Court found that the Fifth Circuit basically decided Buck’s appeal on the merits, which is procedurally improper at the certificate of appealability stage. The Fifth Circuit was essentially sidestepping the requirement of first obtaining a certificate of appealability before a case will be heard on the merits, which the Supreme Court found was tantamount to deciding an appeal without jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court also held that the District Court abused its discretion when it denied Buck’s Rule 60(b)(6) motion for failure to show extraordinary circumstances. Ultimately, the Supreme Court disagreed with the District Court’s finding that Dr. Quijano’s racist testimony played only a de minimis role in the jury’s decision to sentence Buck to death. The Supreme Court held that there was a reasonably probability that Buck was sentenced to death at least in part because he was black, after Dr. Quijano had testified that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes of violence. This is sufficient to constitute extraordinary circumstances, particularly in light of the extraordinary measures that the Texas Attorney General had taken to remove the taint of Dr. Quijano’s testimony in five other death penalty cases in which he testified.

Finally, the Supreme Court held that Buck’s trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, a defendant must show that his counsel performed deficiently, and that deficient performance prejudiced the defendant. The Supreme Court reasoned that the trial counsel’s decision to call Dr. Quijano to the stand and specifically elicit testimony that his client was more likely to be a future danger because he is black was deficient performance. This deficient performance prejudiced Buck because it was likely that a juror could have valued this testimony from a medical expert and applied it to preexisting racial stereotypes. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.

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