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On The Front Lines

Broken Justice: U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Address Racial Bias & Systemic Injustice That Contributed to Hispanic Inmate’s Death Sentence

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the case of a Hispanic man who was sentenced to death—and subsequently subjected to eight years of solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day, which is tantamount to physical torture—based on an expert witness’ racist testimony suggesting that Hispanics pose a greater danger to society than other individuals. The Rutherford Institute had asked the Supreme Court to address the many failings of America’s capital punishment system, epitomized by the case of Victor Hugo Saldaño (Saldaño v. Davis), whose death sentence and lengthy solitary confinement in Texas were allegedly the result of racial bias, mental incompetence and systemic injustice.

Affiliate attorney Christopher Moriarty assisted in advancing the arguments in Saldaño.

“Chronic injustice has turned the American dream into a nightmare,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “At every step along the way, whether it’s encounters with the police, dealings with prosecutors, hearings in court before judges and juries, jail terms in one of the nation’s many prisons, or death sentences handed out without any attempt at impartiality, the system is riddled with corruption, abuse and an appalling disregard for the rights of the citizenry.”

Victor Saldaño, a citizen of Argentina, was charged in Texas with shooting a man in the course of a robbery. After Saldaño was convicted of murder, a separate court proceeding was held to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed. During the penalty phase of the trial, the state presented the testimony of a psychologist who told the jury that Hispanics and blacks pose a greater danger to the public and so posed the kind of future danger that justified imposing the death penalty. On the basis of that racist testimony, the jury sentenced Saldaño to death. He subsequently appealed, asserting that the psychologist’s testimony violated his constitutional right not to be sentenced on the basis of his race.

Although the state defended the sentence for four years on appeal, it eventually admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court that the psychologist’s testimony was improper, and the case was remanded for a new sentencing hearing. However, the Texas courts were unwilling to accept the state’s admission of error, leaving the case to drag on. In the meantime, Saldaño was placed in solitary confinement in Texas’ notoriously severe death-row prison and remained there for nearly eight years until a federal court ordered that he be granted a resentencing hearing. By that time, Saldaño’s mental health had deteriorated so severely due to the conditions of his confinement that he had become mentally incapacitated and was incapable of defending himself. Despite his family’s request that he be moved into a federal psychiatric institution, Saldaño was again sentenced to death, largely due to his erratic behavior in the courtroom. On appeal, Saldaño’s attorneys argued that his extended stay in solitary confinement contributed to the mental deterioration that was the basis for his death sentence, thereby violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

In its amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate Saldaño’s death sentence, The Rutherford Institute expanded on the Eighth Amendment argument, detailing the dehumanizing effects of and psychological harm caused by solitary confinement and arguing that Saldaño should not be put to death because of a condition the state itself caused.

Case History

August 23, 2019 • Rutherford Institute Challenges Death Sentence / Solitary Confinement of Inmate Based on Racial Bias, Mental Incompetence & Systemic Injustice


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