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On The Front Lines

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Denouncing the many failings of America’s capital punishment system, a consistently unjust, error-bound system plagued by racial prejudice, economic inequality and prosecutorial misconduct, The Rutherford Institute is challenging the death sentence and lengthy solitary confinement of a Texas inmate whose sentence was impacted by racial bias, mental incompetence and systemic injustice.

In filing an amicus curiae brief in Saldaño v. Davis, Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the sentence of Texas death row inmate Victor Hugo Saldaño. Saldaño, sentenced to death based on an expert witness’ racist testimony suggesting that Hispanics pose a greater danger to society than other individuals, was subsequently subjected to eights years of solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day, which attorneys argue is psychologically stressful treatment tantamount to physical torture.

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

“There is nothing moral or just about the death penalty, certainly not the way it is implemented in America,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “As capital punishment studies have shown, whether or not you are sentenced to death often has little to do with the crime and everything to do with your race, where you live, and who prosecutes your case.’”

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.

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