The U.S. Supreme Court, missing a justice and shrouded in political uncertainty, today wades into a fraught area of law at the intersection of two dynamic public issues: the death penalty and racial bias in the criminal justice system, reports the Christian Science Monitor. In 1997, Duane Buck was sentenced to death in Texas after an expert defense witness said he was more likely to commit a violent crime again because he was black. By allowing that testimony, Buck’s lawyers gave him constitutionally ineffective legal advocacy that “powerfully undermines confidence in Mr. Buck’s sentence of death,” his current lawyers argue; The case raises stark questions about whether the court’s efforts to reform the death penalty 40 years ago have been fully realized.
It comes as public support for capital punishment hits 40-year lows amid growing concern about racial bias in the larger criminal justice system. In that way, the case could represent a chance for the justices to ask hard questions of the criminal justice system as a whole. “One of the things that Buck represents is that despite multiple efforts to do so, the issue of race and race discrimination in capital sentencing … is just as prevalent today as it was in 1976 when the court put the modern death penalty into effect,” says John Blume of the Cornell Death Penalty Project at Cornell Law School. Since the high court rolled back rolled back a four-year moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, what has changed is “an awareness in our country that has never existed before about the very real impact of racial bias in the criminal justice system,” says Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “While race was certainly an issue 40 years ago, it was nowhere near as nuanced or as illuminated as what we have today.”