“The remedy for the violation of his rights cannot be another death sentence, but commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment,” attorneys for the bishops wrote last month in a petition to the Supreme Court.
The Texas bishops’ intervention comes a year after Pope Francis revised Catholic teaching to hold that capital punishment is always inadmissible and an affront to the “dignity of the person.” The church had said the death penalty could be acceptable in rare cases.
This evolution in church teaching has been met with some resistance, including from five cardinals and bishops who in May signed a “declaration of truths” that they said reaffirmed the church’s position on issues including capital punishment. The Church, the document says, “did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies.”
The Texas bishops wrote in their petition that they were pleading Saldaño’s case not only because it involved the church’s position on the sanctity of human life, but also because the church holds that racial bias like that employed against Saldaño is evil.
Saldaño was convicted in 1996 of capital murder for kidnapping a man at a supermarket in Plano, Tex., driving him to a local lake and fatally shooting him. At Saldaño’s trial, a state psychologist, Walter Quijano, testified that Saldaño’s Hispanic heritage put him at a higher risk for perpetrating future violence.
Saldaño’s case rose to the Supreme Court in 2000 and elicited an admission from Texas’s attorney general that the race-based testimony had made Saldaño’s sentencing hearing unconstitutionally flawed, the bishops’ petition says. The court sent the case back to Texas, the petition says, but Saldaño had become mentally unstable by the time he got a new trial in 2004.
Saldaño was kept for four years before the retrial at Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Tex., where the petition says inmates stay alone in six-by-nine foot cells guarded by steel doors for 23 hours each day. Food is slipped through the bottom of the doors, the petition says, and visitors are not allowed. Saldaño attempted suicide in 2001, spent several periods of time in a psychiatric hospital and collected disciplinary infractions because of his mental decline, the petition says.
To sentence a defendant to death in Texas, a jury has to find they have a high likelihood of “future dangerousness,” said Jonathan Miller, an attorney for Argentina’s government, which is also advocating for Saldaño’s sentence to be commuted. At his retrial, Saldaño masturbated in front of jurors, looked at people strangely and spoke incoherently, Miller said, influencing the jury’s decision that he posed a continued threat to the public.
“He was so degraded mentally that it made any kind of analysis of future dangerousness impossible,” Miller, who is also a professor at Southwestern Law School, told The Washington Post. “How do you evaluate someone for future dangerousness if they’ve been in severe isolation for many years and they’re no longer the same person anymore?”