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Supreme Court justices sound sympathetic to ‘unique’ challenge by Texas inmate

Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller wanted the Supreme Court on Wednesday to consider death-row inmate Duane Edward Buck a dangerous man.

So for a gruesomely detailed six pages in a brief, Keller and his legal team spelled out what happened in Houston in the early morning hours of July 30, 1995, complete with dramatic dialogue.

“Duane, please don’t shoot me,” the brief movingly recounts Buck’s step-sister as saying. “I don’t deserve to be shot. Remember, I do have children.”

But for the eight Supreme Court justices who heard an approximately hour-long oral argument late Wednesday morning, the horrifying drama summoned by Keller mattered far, far less than a legal question that’s both technical and weighty. And on this question that really mattered — whether Buck will get a chance to appeal his death sentence — conservative and liberal justices seemed to agree that Buck deserves another opportunity.

“I don’t understand the reason…why he shouldn’t be able to reopen the case,” Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. echoed the point from the right, saying “I don’t understand why” Buck can’t get a chance to appeal when five other death-row inmates in similar circumstances were allowed to.

This is a very unusual case. Justice Samuel Alito

A jury in 1996 convicted Buck of killing two individuals and wounding his step-sister, and he was sentenced to death after a psychologist summoned by his own defense attorney concluded that being “’Black’ was a ‘statistical factor’ that ‘increased (the) probability’ Mr. Buck would commit future acts of criminal violence.”

Attorney Christina A. Swarns, while acknowledging “the terrible facts of the crime,” stressed that Buck’s sentencing was “compromised by racial bias.”

The argument Wednesday, the third to be held in the court’s newly convened 2016 term, centered on an appellate court’s denial of Buck’s effort to challenge his sentence on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.

“What happened at the penalty phase was indefensible,” Justice Samuel Alito said, while adding a cautionary note about “opening the door” for many more death penalty challenges.

Alito’s stated concerns seemed to set the stage for a narrow ruling that might be confined to Buck’s circumstances.

“It’s a unique case,” Roberts said, “so this would be an odd platform to issue general rules.”

Bobby James Moore, another Texas death-row inmate convicted of a 1980 murder in Houston, will have his own challenge heard by the Supreme Court later this term.

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