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Law School Case Brief

Buck v. Davis - 137 S. Ct. 759 (2017)


The certificate of appealability (COA) inquiry is not coextensive with a merits analysis. At the COA 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 that jurists could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further. When a court of appeals sidesteps the COA process by first deciding the merits of an appeal, and then justifying its denial of a COA based on its adjudication of the actual merits, it is in essence deciding an appeal without jurisdiction.


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." 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.". 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 contended 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, 120 S. Ct. 2214, 147 L. Ed. 2d 246, 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 and sought to reopen his case. The Fifth Circuit denied his application, concluding that he had not shown extraordinary circumstances justifying relief from the District Court's judgment.


Did the district court err in denying Buck’s motion to reopen his case?




The case was reversed and remanded. The Court held that because a reviewing court inverted the statutory order of operations by deciding the merits of an appeal and then denying the COA based on adjudication of the actual merits, it placed too heavy a burden on the prisoner at the COA stage. For Sixth Amendment purposes, the prisoner demonstrated prejudice during the sentencing phase where his attorney called an expert who testified about a connection between his race and the likelihood of violence, and it was reasonably probable that the death sentence would not have been imposed otherwise. Lastly, denying a Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(6) motion to reopen the case was error where it was clear that the prisoner may have been sentenced to death due to his race, the State had admitted that sentencing based on race considerations was error in other cases, and it was inappropriate to consider race no matter how it was injected into the proceeding.

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