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Texas fight takes on race and death penalty

Seven men on death row may be there in part because of race, attorney general says.

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There is a correlation between race and violent behavior, the expert witness testified. Just look at the disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic men in prison.

That testimony has now touched off a Texas-size controversy, involving the Lone Star State's attorney general, its highest criminal appeals court, and seven men on death row. At issue is whether the expert witness's words unfairly influenced juries to mete out death sentences - instead of, say, life in prison - in the cases of the minority convicts.

Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican, has acknowledged that the testimony should not have been permitted - and that the seven inmates deserve new sentencing trials. But so far, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to grant all seven inmates new hearings.

The issue is now attracting international attention because one of the men is an Argentine. Victor Hugo Saldano was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1995 robbery and murder of a Texas man.

Mr. Saldano's guilt is not in question. The issue is whether the prosecution's argument that Saldano is a threat to society, in part because he is Hispanic, swayed the jury's decision to levy the death penalty.

"One of the clearest principles of American constitutional law is that race is an inappropriate basis upon which to make official decisions," says James Liebman, a professor at Columbia University Law School in New York.

The 14th Amendment mandates that US law applies equally to all. The Texas Constitution says the same. However, as recently as the 1950s, judges in the South, including Texas, allowed juries to assess different penalties to people of different races convicted of the same crimes.

Under Texas law, a jury assessing the death penalty must find that a defendant poses a continuing threat to society. Expert witness Walter Quijano, a psychologist, told Saldano's jury there are 24 statistical predictors of criminal behavior, including socioeconomic status, family history, drug abuse, the deliberateness of the crime, and the defendant's age and gender.

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