US justices take death row appeals, Virginia redistricting case

June 6, 2016

The Supreme Court of the United States accepted three cases Monday, including two that claim race is a factor.

The justices will hear appeals from two African-American death-row inmates in Texas, in which one inmate argues his sentence was based on his race.

The high court said they will review death sentences for inmates Bobby Moore and Duane Buck. Neither case poses a broad challenge to the death penalty.

Moore was sentenced to death more than 35 years ago and says he is ineligible to be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

A jury voted to sentence Buck to death after a defense expert testified that black people were more likely to commit violence. Buck's lawyers have fought for years to win a new sentencing hearing.

Buck came close to being executed in 2011, before the justices stepped in with a last-minute reprieve.

But the court later denied a full-blown review of Buck's case in 2014.

This time around, the appeal focuses on a claim that Buck's legal representation was constitutionally deficient.

He was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row for the slaying of his ex-girlfriend and a man at her Houston apartment in July 1995. During the punishment phase of Buck's 1997 trial, psychologist Walter Quijano testified under cross-examination by a Harris County prosecutor that black people were more likely to commit violence.

Quijano, called as a defense witness, had testified earlier that Buck's personality and the nature of his crime, committed during rage, indicated he would be less of a future danger.

Buck's case was among six in 2000 that then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a Republican U.S. senator, said needed to be reopened because of racially charged statements made during the trial sentencing phase. In the other five cases, new punishment hearings were held and each convict again was sentenced to death.

The attorney general's office has said Buck's case was factually and legally different from the five others and that Buck's trial lawyers first elicited the testimony from the psychologist. They also said the racial reference was a small part of larger testimony about prison populations.

Moore claims that Texas' top criminal appeals court is using outdated medical standards in evaluating whether he is eligible to be executed. Moore says that Supreme Court decisions in 2002 and 2014 bar executing intellectually disabled inmates, who are evaluated under current standards.

The court initially announced that it would consider a second issue raised by Moore, that executing him after he has lived under a death sentence for so many years would inflict "needless pain and suffering in violation of the Eighth Amendment." But the court said later Monday that it had made a mistake and would not consider the length of Moore's time on death row.

The Supreme Court also will review a districting plan for the Virginia House of Delegates that challengers say gives too little power to African-American voters in an effort to boost Republican strength.

The case concerns claims that a plan approved in 2011 illegally packed black voters into a dozen legislative districts. The challengers say the plan made neighboring districts safer for Republicans because those districts had fewer black voters, who tend to support Democrats.

The court last month dismissed a Republican-led appeal that sought to preserve a congressional districting map that similarly concentrated black voters in one district and improved GOP prospects elsewhere in the state.

In the new case, a panel of three federal judges had voted 2-1 to uphold 11 of 12 districts. Writing for the majority, Judge Robert Payne said the challengers had failed to prove that race was the predominant factor in the composition of the districts.

The dissenting judge, Barbara Milano Keenan, said Virginia's General Assembly had applied a "one-size-fits-all racial quota" to 12 dissimilar districts.

Keenan said the legislature came up with the Virginia plan before a 2015 Supreme Court ruling in an Alabama redistricting case that rejected the use of "mechanical racial targets" in redrawing voting districts.

Democrats had hoped the federal judges would require the state House lines to be redrawn and order a special election this year. That would have given Democrats a chance to retake the state House while voter turnout is high during the presidential race.

The Virginia State Board of Elections argues in court papers that the plan garnered near-unanimous support from both political parties as well as the House Black Caucus.

Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William Howell, a Republican, said he is confident the Supreme Court will uphold the plan. He said the lower court ruling "shows that the House districts were drawn in accordance with the Constitution, all state and federal laws, and in a fair and open process."

The cases, Moore v. Texas, 15-797, and Buck v. Stephens, 15-8049, and Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 15-680, will be argued when the court's new term begins in the fall.


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