BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — When Lidia Guerrero met with Pope Francis in Rome last year, the Argentine native told her he knew all about Guerrero’s son, who has been on death row in Texas for 19 years.
“I’ve prayed so much for that young man from Cordoba,” she says Francis told her, referring to the hometown of Victor Hugo Saldano.
The short meeting in February 2014 left Guerrero with more hope than she has felt in years about the future of her son, who she says is guilty of murder but has been driven to insanity on death row.
Francis is a staunch critic of the death penalty, and like most countries in Latin America, his homeland of Argentina does not have capital punishment.
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Death penalty opponents are hoping that Francis pressures lawmakers to abolish it when he visits the United States next month, and Guerrero is praying that the pope intervenes on behalf of her son.
Such pleas by popes or politicians from other countries often fall on deaf ears, and face particularly long odds in Texas, the U.S. state that makes most use of the death penalty.
Still, Pope John Paul II successfully won a reprieve in 1999 from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan on behalf of a prisoner scheduled for execution who instead was ordered to serve life in prison without parole.
“I have no certainty that Francis will ask for clemency for my son, but I do have hope,” said Guerrero, 67.
Her hope is based on several factors, from the papal meeting to the legal fight surrounding Saldano’s original death sentence. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the sentence back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review because Saldano’s Hispanic ethnicity was one of the criteria the jury considered when deciding between the death penalty and life in prison. In 2004, Saldano had a second sentencing trial that did not factor in ethnicity and was again given the death penalty.
“Two different juries have found that Saldano is a future danger and should die for his crime,” wrote John R. Rolater, Jr., the assistant criminal district attorney in Collin County, where Saldano was convicted, in an email response to questions from The Associated Press.
Guerrero and her lawyer, Juan Carlos Vega, say they sent a letter to the Vatican about Saldano in December 2013, and were immediately invited to Rome. Since the meeting, Vega says he has provided Vatican officials documentation on the legal fight.
“This isn’t just one more death penalty case,” said Vega, who helped present the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Kenneth Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told the AP that he wasn’t aware of Saldano’s case but that people with loved ones in U.S. prisons frequently appeal to the pope. Hackett said Francis is very critical of the death penalty, and he may raise the issue while visiting a correctional center in Philadelphia.
Guerrero says her son left home at 18, first going to Brazil, where his father was living, and then to several countries in South America. Saldano spent the next several years traveling and working odd jobs as he moved across Central America and Mexico.
“From the time he was a boy, he always talked about seeing the world,” said Guerrero.
In the early 1990s, Saldano entered the United States illegally via the Mexico-Texas border. After spending some time in New York City, he returned to Dallas and worked in a factory.
Guerrero says her son told her that he was living in a crime-ridden neighborhood and carried a gun for protection.
On Nov. 25, 1995, Saldano and Mexican friend Jorge Chavez, drunk and high on crack cocaine, were seen holding Paul King at gunpoint in a parking lot.
King was later found shot to death in a nearby forest. When Saldano was arrested, he was wearing King’s watch and carrying the gun.
During the penalty phase of the 1996 trial, psychologist Walter Quijano was called as an expert witness, according to court documents. Quijano presented 24 factors for the jury to use in evaluating whether Saldano would be dangerous in the future, including race.
Quijano said that blacks and Hispanics were overrepresented in Texas prisons, and thus there was a correlation between race and future dangerousness.
The jury gave Saldano the death penalty.
After several appeals, in 2002 the Supreme Court sent the case back to Texas to review after then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said the state erred by including ethnicity in the case.
During the sentencing trial in 2004, Saldano masturbated twice in the presence of jurors, and prosecutors cited incidents inside the prison, like smearing feces and urine on cell walls.
“They locked him in the pressure cooker of death row for seven years and then told everyone, ‘Look how dangerous he is,'” said Jonathan Miller, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles who has worked on Saldano’s case.
Rolater, the assistant district attorney, said that Saldano was competent to stand trial and “has a documented history of faking mental illness during his confinement.”
Saldano is in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northeast of Houston. Cells are 60 square feet (5.6 sq. meters) and each has a small window. Inmates are kept alone 23 hours a day.
Saldano’s execution date has not been scheduled.
Even if Francis brings up the case, clemency is a long shot. It would require a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to Gov. Greg Abbott, and Abbott could reject it.
Still, Guerrero would be happy with any development that shines a light on her son’s case and capital punishment.
“The death penalty is dangerous thing,” said Guerrero. “And Victor has already paid for his crime.”
Associated Press writers Mike Graczyk in Houston, Rachel Zoll in New York and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.
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