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Supreme Court Punts Death Penalty Case: Sotomayor, Alito Square Off On Decision Not To Hear Argument

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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday morning declined to hear a controversial death penalty case out of Texas and agreed to hear oral argument on the constitutionality of sentencing a juvenile convicted of homicide to life in prison.

The death penalty case, Buck v. Thaler, attracted considerable attention in September when the justices stayed the execution of Duane Buck to consider whether they should hear his case. Buck, who is black, argued that his right to a fair trial was violated when an expert witness testified that African Americans pose a greater risk of "future dangerousness." In Texas, a jury must find that a defendant poses a continuing threat to society in order to recommend a death sentence.

Buck's case ultimately did not receive the four votes necessary for the high court to agree to hear the case. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented from the denial, describing Buck's death sentence as "marred by racial overtones" that "our criminal justice system should not tolerate."

Sotomayor's dissent prompted Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, to issue a statement explaining their votes to deny Buck's case. They led with the grisly facts that Buck had murdered his former girlfriend as her children watched and then, upon his arrest, had laughingly said that the "bitch deserved what she got."

For Alito, Scalia and Breyer, the decision whether to hear the case turned on who had introduced the race-based evidence to the jury. They conceded that the testimony of the expert witness, Dr. Walter Quijano, "would provide a basis for reversal of [Buck's] sentence if the prosecution were responsible for presenting that testimony to the jury." But the expert "was a defense witness, and it was [Buck's] attorney, not the prosecutor, who first elicited Dr. Quijano's view regarding the correlation between race and future dangerousness." Accordingly, Buck's death sentence could not be thrown out based on evidence that his own lawyer put forward.

Speaking to The Huffington Post in September, retired Justice John Paul Stevens anticipated the substance of the justices' private debate that was made public by the Sotomayor and Alito opinions released Monday. "It certainly would be quite wrong to let a jury rely on the race of the defendant as a factor militating in favor of imposing the [death] penalty," Stevens said. Yet the case presents a "tricky issue," he said, because of Quijano's status as a defense witness whose questionable answers came during direct examination by Buck's lawyer.

Shortly before he left the bench, Stevens held that the death penalty violated the Constitution.

Following the Supreme Court's denial of Buck's petition, his appeals lawyer, Kate Black of the Texas Defender Service, issued a release expressing disappointment that the justices "will not be considering whether the reliance on Mr. Buck's race as a basis for asking the jury to sentence him to death violated the Constitution."

Black wrote, "It is now up to the State of Texas to ensure that Mr. Buck receives a sentencing hearing that is not impacted by the color of his skin."

Also on Monday, the Court granted petitions to hear two cases that both ask whether a juvenile convicted of homicide may be sentenced to life in prison without parole. These cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, come on the heels of the Court's decision last year that banned life without parole for juveniles who committed crimes other than homicide, deeming such a sentence "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The justices will likely hear argument in Miller and Jackson at the end of February, with a decision to be handed down by the end of June.

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