By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared set to side with a black Texas death row inmate seeking to avoid execution after his own trial lawyer called an expert witness who testified the man was more likely to be dangerous in the future because of his race.
In taking up a death penalty case during the first week of its new term, the court heard arguments over whether convicted murderer Duane Buck, 53, should get a shot at a new sentence in a state that executes more death row inmates than any other.
Buck was convicted of fatally shooting his former girlfriend while her young children watched, as well as another man, during a 1995 argument in Houston. A police officer testified that after being detained Buck laughed and said, "The bitch got what she deserved."
Justices on both sides of the court's ideological divide, including conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared willing to rule in favor of Buck, although it was unclear how broad the decision would be.
Death penalty opponents have pointed to statistics showing black defendants far more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to die, and argue that racial bias endures in the American criminal justice system and in death penalty cases in particular.
Buck's lawyers told the eight justices Buck should get a chance to argue for a new sentencing hearing because testimony by the expert witness called by own lawyer could have influenced the jury in sentencing deliberations.
Clinical psychologist Walter Quijano, testifying on the likelihood of Buck committing future offenses, said black and Hispanic people are more likely to be dangerous because they are "over-represented" among violent offenders.
Buck's current lawyers said in court papers that "the alleged link between race and future dangerousness has been proven false."
Buck is seeking reversal of a 2015 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denying his request for an appeal.
A narrow ruling in Buck's favor would allow him to raise his claim on appeal in a lower court without the justices deciding the merits of whether he should get a new sentencing hearing. Roberts said such a ruling would be a "pretty straightforward" way to resolve the case.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who previously has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the death penalty because of the way it is implemented, appeared to suggest the case illustrated his point.
Texas in 2002 allowed six other death row inmates convicted in trials in which Quijano had given similar testimony to get new sentencing hearings but objected in Buck's case.
"It seems to me it proves the arbitrariness of what is going on," Breyer said, apparently referring to how the death penalty is used in America, an issue that has provoked sharp disagreements in recent years on the high court.
All six of the prisoners Breyer referenced were again sentenced to death. Three have been executed.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito called the defense lawyer's decision to introduce Quijano's testimony "indefensible" although he appeared concerned that a broad ruling favoring Buck would make it too easy for defendants to challenge convictions or sentences.
Buck's step sister Phyllis Taylor, who he shot during the incident, supports his appeal and was present at the court.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)