Buck v. Davis
580 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Buck was convicted of murder; under Texas law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Buck was likely to commit future acts of violence. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist, Dr. Quijano, who had been appointed to evaluate Buck. While concluding that Buck was unlikely to be a future danger, Quijano stated, in his report and testimony, that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury returned a sentence of death. In his first post-conviction proceeding, Buck did not argue ineffective assistance of counsel. In the meantime, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment in a case in which Quijano had testified that Hispanic heritage weighed in favor of a finding of future dangerousness. The Texas Attorney General then identified six cases in which Quijano had testified and, in five cases, consented to resentencing. Buck’s second state habeas petition, alleging ineffective assistance, was dismissed for failure to raise the claim in his first petition. Buck sought federal habeas relief (28 U.S.C. 2254). His claim was held procedurally defaulted. The Supreme Court subsequently issued holdings (Martinez and Trevino) under which Buck’s claim could have been heard, had he demonstrated that state post-conviction counsel was constitutionally ineffective in failing to raise a claim that had some merit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed rejection of Buck’s motion to reopen, finding that Buck had not established extraordinary circumstances or ineffective assistance. The Supreme Court reversed. The question was not whether Buck had shown that his case is extraordinary; it was whether jurists of reason could debate that issue. No competent defense attorney would introduce evidence that his client is liable to be a future danger because of his race. There is a reasonable probability that Buck was sentenced to death in part because of his race, a concern that supports Rule 60(b)(6) relief. The Court rejected, as waived, the state’s argument that Martinez and Trevino did not apply.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (John G. Roberts, Jr.)  | 
  • Dissent (Clarence Thomas)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co.,200 U. S. 321.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

BUCK v. DAVIS, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS DIVISION

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 15–8049. Argued October 5, 2016—Decided February 22, 2017

Petitioner Duane Buck was convicted of capital murder in a Texas court. Under state law, the jury was permitted to impose a death sentence only if it found unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, to offer his opinion on that issue. Dr. Quijano had been appointed to evaluate Buck by the presiding judge and had prepared a report setting out his conclusions. To determine the likelihood that Buck would act violently in the future, Dr. Quijano had considered a number of statistical factors, including Buck’s race. Although Dr. Quijano ultimately concluded that Buck was unlikely to be a future danger, his report also stated that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The report read, in relevant part: “Race. Black: Increased probability.” App. 19a. Despite knowing the contents of the report, Buck’s counsel called Dr. Quijano to the stand, where he testified that race is a factor “know[n] to predict future dangerousness.” Id., at 146a. Dr. Quijano’s report was admitted into evidence at the close of his testimony. The prosecution questioned Dr. Quijano about his conclusions on race and violence during cross-examination, and it relied on his testimony in summation. During deliberations, the jury requested and received the expert reports admitted into evidence, including Dr. Quijano’s. The jury returned a sentence of death.

Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. Buck failed to raise this claim in his first state postconviction proceeding. While that proceeding was pending, this Court received a petition for certiorari in Saldano v. Texas,530 U. S. 1212, a case in which Dr. Quijano had testified that the petitioner’s Hispanic heritage weighed in favor of a finding of future dangerousness. Texas confessed error on that ground, and this Court vacated the judgment below. Soon afterward, the Texas Attorney General issued a public statement identifying six similar cases in which Dr. Quijano had testified. Buck’s was one of them. In the other five cases, the Attorney General confessed error and consented to resentencing. But when Buck filed a second state habeas petition alleging that his attorney had been ineffective in introducing Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the State did not confess error, and the court dismissed the petition as an abuse of the writ on the ground that Buck had failed to raise the claim in his first petition.

Buck then sought federal habeas relief under28 U. S. C. §2254. The State again declined to confess error, and Buck’s ineffective assistance claim was held procedurally defaulted and unreviewable under Coleman v. Thompson,501 U. S. 722. This Court’s later decisions in Martinez v. Ryan,566 U. S. 1, and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. ___, modified the rule of Coleman. Had they been decided before Buck filed his federal habeas petition, Buck’s claim could have been heard on the merits provided he had demonstrated that (1) state postconviction counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in failing to raise the claim, and (2) the claim had some merit. Following the decision in Trevino, Buck sought to reopen his §2254 case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6). To demonstrate the “extraordinary circumstances” required for relief, Gonzalez v. Crosby,545 U. S. 524, Buck cited the change in law effected by Martinez and Trevino, as well as ten other factors, including the introduction of expert testimony linking Buck’s race to violence and the State’s confession of error in similar cases. The District Court denied relief. Reasoning that “the introduction of any mention of race” during Buck’s sentencing was “de minimis,” the court concluded, first, that Buck had failed to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances; and second, that even if the circumstances were extraordinary, Buck had failed to demonstrate ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington,466 U. S. 668. Buck sought a certificate of appealability (COA) from the Fifth Circuit to appeal the denial of his Rule 60(b)(6) motion. The Fifth Circuit denied his application, concluding that he had not shown extraordinary circumstances justifying relief from the District Court’s judgment.

Held:

1. The Fifth Circuit exceeded the limited scope of the COA analysis. The COA statute sets forth a two-step process: an initial determination whether a claim is reasonably debatable, and, if so, an appeal in the normal course.28 U. S. C. §2253. At the first stage, the only question is whether the applicant has shown that “jurists of reason could disagree with the district court’s resolution of his constitutional claims or . . . could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further.” Miller-El v. Cockrell,537 U. S. 322. Here, the Fifth Circuit phrased its determination in proper terms. But it reached its conclusion only after essentially deciding the case on the merits, repeatedly faulting Buck for having failed to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances. The question for the Court of Appeals was not whether Buck had shown that his case is extraordinary; it was whether jurists of reason could debate that issue. The State points to the Fifth Circuit’s thorough consideration of the merits to defend that court’s approach, but this hurts rather than helps its case. Pp. 12–15.

2. Buck has demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland. Pp. 15–20.

(a) To satisfy Strickland, a defendant must first show that counsel performed deficiently. 466 U. S., at 687. Buck’s trial counsel knew that Dr. Quijano’s report reflected the view that Buck’s race predisposed him to violent conduct and that the principal point of dispute during the penalty phase was Buck’s future dangerousness. Counsel nevertheless called Dr. Quijano to the stand, specifically elicited testimony about the connection between race and violence, and put Dr. Quijano’s report into evidence. No competent defense attorney would introduce evidence that his client is liable to be a future danger because of his race. Pp. 15–17.

(b) Strickland further requires a defendant to demonstrate prejudice—“a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” 466 U. S., at 694. It is reasonably probable that without Dr. Quijano’s testimony on race and violence, at least one juror would have harbored a reasonable doubt on the question of Buck’s future dangerousness. This issue required the jury to make a predictive judgment inevitably entailing a degree of speculation. But Buck’s race was not subject to speculation, and according to Dr. Quijano, that immutable characteristic carried with it an increased probability of future violence. Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype and might well have been valued by jurors as the opinion of a medical expert bearing the court’s imprimatur. For these reasons, the District Court’s conclusion that any mention of race during the penalty phase was de minimis is rejected. So is the State’s argument that Buck was not prejudiced by Dr. Quijano’s testimony because it was introduced by his own counsel, rather than the prosecution. Jurors understand that prosecutors seek convictions and may reasonably be expected to evaluate the government’s evidence in light of its motivations. When damaging evidence is introduced by a defendant’s own lawyer, it is in the nature of an admission against interest, more likely to be taken at face value. Pp. 17–20.

3. The District Court’s denial of Buck’s Rule 60(b)(6) motion was an abuse of discretion. Pp. 20–26.

(a) Relief under Rule 60(b)(6) is available only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Gonzalez, 545 U. S., at 535. Determining whether such circumstances are present may include consideration of a wide range of factors, including “the risk of injustice to the parties” and “the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process.” Liljeberg v. Health Services Acquisition Corp.,486 U. S. 847–864. The District Court’s denial of Buck’s motion rested largely on its determination that race played only a de minimis role in his sentencing. But there is a reasonable probability that Buck was sentenced to death in part because of his race. This is a disturbing departure from the basic premise that our criminal law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. That it concerned race amplifies the problem. Relying on race to impose a criminal sanction “poisons public confidence” in the judicial process, Davis v. Ayala, 576 U. S. ___, ___, a concern that supports Rule 60(b)(6) relief. The extraordinary nature of this case is confirmed by the remarkable steps the State itself took in response to Dr. Quijano’s testimony in other cases. Although the State attempts to justify its decision to treat Buck differently from the other five defendants identified in the Attorney General’s public statement, its explanations for distinguishing Buck’s case from Saldano have nothing to do with the Attorney General’s stated reasons for confessing error in that case. Pp. 20–24.

(b) Unless Martinez and Trevino, rather than Coleman, would govern Buck’s case were it reopened, his claim would remain unreviewable and Rule 60(b)(6) relief would be inappropriate. The State argues that Martinez and Trevino would not govern Buck’s case because they announced a “new rule” under Teague v. Lane,489 U. S. 288, that does not apply retroactively to cases (like Buck’s) on collateral review. This argument, however, has been waived: the State failed to advance it in District Court, before the Fifth Circuit, or in its brief in opposition to Buck’s petition for certiorari. Pp. 24–26.

623 Fed. Appx. 668, reversed and remanded.

Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Alito, J., joined.

Primary Holding
An ineffective assistance of counsel claim likely will be appropriate when a defense attorney introduces evidence that his client is likely to be a future danger because of his race, and there is a reasonable probability that the defendant's sentence was based on this evidence.

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