Lawyers’ Committee and Jones Day Submit Brief in Case Concerning Racial Bias and the Death Penalty
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued the following statement regarding today’s Supreme Court argument in Buck v. Davis:
“This case comes before the Supreme Court at a moment when our nation is grappling with stark evidence of racial discrimination that infects every level of our criminal justice system,” said Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke. “The stakes could not be higher than when a jury must determine whether or not to impose a life of death sentence. Rather than presenting an individualized view of Mr. Buck at his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor relied squarely on an ‘expert’ report that stereotyped African Americans as dangerous and violent. This case makes clear that race threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system and calls into question the fairness of the death penalty as a form of punishment.”
The Lawyers’ Committee and Jones Day filed an amicus curiae, “friend of the court,” brief in the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Buck v. Davis. The case involves the question of whether the Fifth Circuit improperly denied Duane Buck, a death row inmate, the right to appeal when his trial defense counsel knowingly presented an “expert” who testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is African American, where future dangerousness was the central issue at sentencing. The Lawyers’ Committee’s brief was filed in support of Mr. Buck and argued that the expert’s testimony, combined with a deeply engrained stereotype of “blacks as criminal,” tainting the jury’s decision approach to the sentencing phase of the trial.
The brief argues that, throughout American history, African Americans have been stereotyped as criminal and, as a result, a wide variety of criminal laws expressly or implicitly targeted African Americans. Research shows that the stereotype of black as criminal has permeated most Americans’ subconscious associations, and that this stereotype influences our decisions and behaviors. These psychological dispositions can be brought to the fore by exposure to racially-tinged triggers, a process known as “priming.” Because we are psychologically geared to give greater credence to authority figures, implicit biases and priming have a particularly profound impact when invoked by an expert witness, functioning as an authority on the issue in question. As a result, juries are likely to obey an expert’s suggestions rather than evaluate them dispassionately.
Building on centuries of racial prejudice, the expert primed jurors to follow their implicit biases in finding that Mr. Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future because of his race.
“Today is also historically significant given that NAACP Legal Defense Fund Litigation Director Christina Swarns was the first African American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court case in three years,” added Ms. Clarke. “Swarns was an exceptional advocate before the Court in this case. Her appearance reminds us that African Americans remain underrepresented as jurists yet overrepresented as defendants.”
About the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Formed over 50 years ago, we continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education; environmental justice; and criminal justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.