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Racism, mental disabilities are at the center of 2 Supreme Court death row cases next term

Two men sentenced to death in Texas. To appeal, one argues racial discrimination. The second, cruel and unusual punishment.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In midst of a quieter, eight-justice Supreme Court term — cases on immigration, abortion, and affirmative action aside — the Court announced this week that it will take up two death row cases next term.

Neither case addresses the legality of capital punishment as a penalty but gives the court the ability to more generally question the criminal justice system. The first, concerning Duane Edward Buck, an African-American death row inmate, revolves around the racial implications in harsh rulings; the second, involving Barry James Moore, questions the "cruel and unusual" impact of solitary confinement on an inmate subject to the death penalty.

The capital punishment sentencing is the common thread, raising the stakes in the both cases, while the Court addresses the practices and processes the criminal court and prison system tolerates and those it shouldn't.

Here is what you need to know about the two cases on the Supreme Court's docket for next term:

Buck v. Stephens: a case about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system

Buck, on death row in Texas for shooting his ex-girlfriend and her friend, is attempting to win a retrial — one that could very well land him with the death penalty again. But in 1997 Buck was sentenced to death after his own legal counsel actually argued, through a psychologist expert, that Buck was more likely to pose a continued danger to society because he is black.

In Texas — one of 32 states with capital punishment as legal penalty — the death penalty can be imposed only if prosecutors find that an inmate poses a future danger to society. In Buck's case, that decision was heavily influenced by his own legal team's supposed defense. But racial discrimination in court proceedings is also prohibited, so in 2000 Texas's attorney general conceded that the case's proceedings should be thrown out for "pernicious" racial bias.

Six other cases were granted resentencing for similar circumstances, but due to legal technicalities Buck's was not.

Buck's current NAACP Legal Defense Fund legal team argues that the circuit court imposed an undue burden on Buck's appealing process. Unlike the six other cases granted resentencing, Buck was required to get a certificate of appealability — or a judge- or justice-issued allowance to appeal, which was denied — before being able to claim that his original legal counsel caused more harm than good.

While the case itself is procedural, Buck's defense is framing the argument in its larger context of racial discrimination.

"Duane Buck’s death penalty case raises a pressing issue of national importance: whether and to what extent the criminal justice system tolerates racial bias and discrimination," the defense's petition to the Supreme Court reads.

The case is additionally weighted with the death penalty on the line. In 2011, the Supreme Court put a hold on Buck's execution but denied a review of his case.

In April, the New York Times's editorial board made a case for Buck, calling for a fair trial:

It’s hard to see how this case isn’t extraordinary. The risk of prejudice is particularly high in Harris County, Tex., where Mr. Buck was sentenced. In a seven-year period that included Mr. Buck’s trial, Harris County prosecutors were more than three times as likely to seek the death penalty against a black defendant as against a white one. Over the past dozen years, every new death sentence in the county has been imposed on a man of color.

Racism, of course, has been central to the American death penalty from the start. Forty years ago, the Supreme Court reversed its own brief moratorium and permitted executions to resume, provided that death sentences were not imposed in an "arbitrary or capricious manner."

Bobby Moore v. Texas: addressing the use of solitary confinement

In 1980, Moore, then 20 years old, was sentenced to death for killing a store employee during a robbery in Houston. Again in 2001, after being granted retrial for having ineffective counsel, Moore was resentenced to death.

Now, 35 years after his initial sentencing, his defense poses two questions: first, whether Moore's three and a half decades on death row, 15 years of which was almost exclusively in solitary confinement, should be considered "cruel and unusual punishment." The second questions the court's use of an outdated standard — only using IQ testing, which the Supreme Court previously deemed not a definitive intellectual ability test — to determine mental disability.

Moore's defense argues that IQ testing underestimated Moore's subaverage mental capability, giving them more grounds to invalidate the death sentence all together. From a young age, Moore has shown little intellectual ability: He dropped out of school in ninth grade and still "required 'daily drills' from his teacher on topics such as the days of the week, the months of the year, and the ability to tell time," at the age of 13, according to the petition to the Supreme Court.

The question of intellect in determining who deserves the death penalty is why Moore presents an interesting case for inmates with death sentences. In 2013, the average time for an inmate to sit on death row was roughly 16 years — a time period that has steadily increased in the past decade.

Moore has been awaiting his execution for more than double the average; it has been scheduled and then halted three times, all within five days of the actual date. In Moore's case, the mental toll of being imprisoned for long periods of time under a death sentence has been compounded by long periods of time in solitary confinement, which the Court previously ruled causes "immense mental anxiety amounting to a great increase of the offender’s punishment," according to the petition.

If the Court rules that Moore's situation violates the Eighth Amendment by declaring that long periods in solitary confinement on death row is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, the case would not only influence the treatment of the nearly 3,000 people on death row in the United States but also bring additional questions to the impacts of solitary confinement on the inmate population as a whole.

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