‘Some Toxins Can Be Deadly in Small Doses’

The U.S. Supreme Court gave a Texas death-row inmate a second chance to avoid the death penalty on Wednesday, ruling in a 6-2 decision that Duane Buck’s lawyer had unconstitutionally introduced testimony suggesting he was more likely to be commit future crimes because he is black.

“As an initial matter, this is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.”

A Texas jury found Buck guilty of capital murder for killing his ex-girlfriend and one of her friends in 1995. His case then moved to the sentencing phase to determine whether he would receive the death penalty. In most states with capital punishment, the phase largely consists of jurors weighing aggravating factors, such as previous convictions, against mitigating ones, like a troubled childhood.

Texas, however, includes an additional step before reaching that balancing act. State laws required the jury to decide whether Buck would pose a “continuing threat to society” if he lived. To assure the jury that Buck did not meet the “future dangerousness” threshold for execution, Buck’s lawyer, a public defender named Jerry Guerniot, called two psychologists to the stand.

Both of them testified that Buck was unlikely to commit further acts of violence. But one of them, Walter Quijano, used a seven-point statistical model to make his determination. The fourth factor was race, with black defendants rated as more likely to commit violent acts in the future.

Guerniot called Quijano to the stand and asked him to discuss his statistical factors. “It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are over-represented in the criminal-justice system,” Quijano testified at one point. He did not revise his argument when cross-examined by the state.

“You have determined that the sex factor, that a male is more violent than a female because that’s just the way it is, and that the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?” the prosecutor asked. “Yes,” Quijano replied.

Presenting that testimony to a jury clearly amounted to inadequate assistance of legal counsel, the justices concluded. “No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client,” Roberts wrote. Indeed, Guerniot, who no longer handles death-penalty cases, has received intense criticism for his track record when defending clients facing execution.

Race has long played a role in which defendants get the death penalty and which ones don’t, albeit in subtler ways. What made Buck’s case unusual is that the unconstitutional testimony came not from the prosecution, but from a witness called to testify in Buck’s defense. As my colleague Garrett Epps explained when the Court took up Buck’s case in September, this difference trapped the case in the byzantine morass of death-penalty appeals. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals first ruled against Buck on procedural grounds in 2006, then rejected his efforts again in 2015 after a Supreme Court ruling on Texas’s appeals system gave him a second bite of the apple.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, insisted that the Court should have upheld the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of federal appellate procedure. “Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it,” Thomas complained in his dissent. He also sided with the lower courts’ determination that Buck’s claimed violated of his Sixth Amendment rights had only a minimal affect of the outcome.

The majority of justices conceded those comments amounted to only a brief exchange during the broader sentencing phase. But they also concluded the statements had crossed a constitutional barrier by making Buck’s race an explicit part of the calculus for whether he would live or die. “Some toxins can be deadly in small doses,” Roberts wrote.

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These Students Are Adopting The Climate Goals That Trump Dismisses

These Students Are Adopting The Climate Goals That Trump Dismisses

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Two days after President Donald Trump ’s stunning election victory in November, about 80 high school students crammed into the classroom of a suburban Seattle science teacher for an emergency meeting.

The students from Tesla STEM High School were worried that Trump, an occasional climate change denier , would follow through on his campaign promise to abandon the 2015 Paris Agreement on reducing global carbon emissions, and cause irreversible harm to the environment. Rather than wait for the newly elected president to show a commitment to fight warming global temperatures and rising sea levels, the students opted for a more grassroots approach.

The teens would hold their school to the same tough standards on greenhouse gas emissions that the accord had set for the U.S., even if Trump wanted to walk away from the agreement. With any luck, they figured, other schools and institutions would notice and follow their lead.

Today, between 80 to 100 of the around 600 students attending the Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington, have joined a project to enforce the agreement. They’ve called their group “Schools Under 2C,” a reference to the Paris deal’s stated goal of capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius.

“This is our future that’s being affected,” said the group’s president Anne Lee, a 16-year-old junior. “We wanted to show that kids care about climate change.”

In December 2015, representatives of 196 countries gathered in Paris agreed to a landmark environmental agreement that would help reduce the effects of global warming by preventing the earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. The countries agreed to reduce the use of fossil fuel and to set targets for greenhouse gas production for each country. The United States committed to cutting its emissions by 2025 to 26 percent to 28 percent below their 2005 level.

But those goals appear to be at risk under a Trump administration, as the president campaigned to abandon the landmark treaty. He had also claimed that global warming was “an expensive hoax ” perpetuated by China.  

Tesla STEM science and engineering teacher Mike Town had begun including the Paris agreement in his curriculum last year and knew that many teenagers felt passionately about its prospect for staving off worldwide disaster. Now, the hopes for the accord are in the hands of Trump, who had said he’d “cancel” the deal .

“This is something they want to see and it gets taken away so fast,” Town said. “They were just devastated by the results of the election.” He organized the first student meeting about the Paris climate goals under Trump and what they would do.

“The idea was that our students would do something that would be productive and get actual results,” said Town, who now serves as the group’s adviser.

The students won faculty support with a Powerpoint presentation showing plans to reduce the school’s carbon emissions by targeting some of the largest sources of inefficiency and greenhouse gas emissions: food waste, lighting, transportation and heating.

While drafting the program, the students began measuring energy usage and waste at the school. They learned there was lots of room for improvement by making simple behavioral changes. For example, about 75 percent of the school’s garbage could actually be recycled or composted, the students said.

After three months of preparations, the green reforms took effect at the start of February. For the first time, the school has a composting program that reduces the quantity of trash hauled long distances to a landfill in Oregon. Electricity use is down as teachers have pledged to shut the lights when classrooms are not in use.

Thanks to the composting and lighting conservation, the students estimated they could reduce their school’s emissions in those areas above their initial goal of 28 percent. That translates into 2 fewer tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere this month, according to their calculations. Plus, they say they’re saving the district money.

“I’m really amazed at how this is going and how much we can do to help solve this issue,” said 17-year-old junior Fred Qin, who maintains the group’s data.

University of California, Davis professor Kurt Kornbluth, who’s working to make the 35,000-student university campus carbon-neutral by 2025, applauded the Tesla STEM students for making an environmental impact, and, more importantly, for taking action themselves.

“You get them the information and then they can do something about it,” Kornbluth said.  

To make an even bigger dent in the school’s carbon footprint will require coming up with more efficient heating and transportation options.

And the Tesla STEM students are hoping to do just that. They are working with local transportation officials to develop an app to encourage carpooling, biking, walking and taking the bus to school. Rayan Krishnan, 15, who is involved in developing the app, said students may get incentives to participate from local shops. He hopes the app will foster competition among schools to have green transportation.

“We’re going to be the ones who inherit this country,” Rayan said. “We can’t vote, but we can have an impact.”

In some respects, the students’ initial fears over a Trump victory became realities. Soon after the election, Trump sought ways to withdraw from the Paris agreement. He’s since said he has “an open mind” about the climate agreement. Then, Trump picked former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency despite a record of opposition to environmental regulations and the agency.

The Tesla STEM students’ actions fit in with the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as a hotbed for pioneering environmental causes. They’ve learned about former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who in 2005 declared the Emerald City would meet the Kyoto Protocol goals even though then-President George Bush opposed the precursor to the Paris agreement.

Town, had previously created an environmental challenge when he taught at neighboring Redmond High Schoo. The program, which won an EPA award and is now a program offered to 5,000 schools by the National Wildlife Federation.

We’re going to be the ones who inherit this country.
Rayan Krishnan, student

There’s also an ongoing lawsuit in the state filed by eight young people, 12-year-old to 16-year-olds, who allege that state officials have failed to protect them from pollution .

Starting locally makes sense, according to Cooper Martin, program director of the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute. He said that city and town officials are more responsive to environmental concerns than politicians in state and federal government.

“It’s become an issue that local elected officials have to respond to like education and public safety,” Martin said, emphasizing that student activism pushes local environmental initiatives.

The Tesla STEM students are doing what they can. The group developing the transportation app is hoping to launch before May, which is National Bike Month. Each day, student monitors check that teachers have switched off the lights before leaving their rooms. And after school, a team weighs what’s been tossed into the compost to tabulate the day’s carbon savings.

“People think climate change is scary, but really you just need to make small changes,” Rayan said.

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