Argentine mom hopes Pope will help get son off death row

Pope Popping up Across Philadelphia Region


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.

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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.

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.

Photos of Pope Francis' recent trip to South America:

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Argentine mom hopes Pope will help get son off death row
Pope Francis waves as he rides in the popemobile through the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he rides in the popemobile through the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful wait for Pope Francis at the Marian National Shrine of 'El Quinche' in the outskirts of Quito on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. Francis will arrive in the Andean state from Ecuador, where he will wrap up his stay with a visit to a sanctuary of the Virgin of El Quinche outside the capital Quito. AFP PHOTO/JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen are deployed waiting for Pope Francis at the Nursing Home of the Missionaries of Charity in Tumbaco, Ecuador on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. Francis will arrive in the Andean state from Ecuador, where he will wrap up his stay with a visit to a sanctuary of the Virgin of El Quinche outside the capital Quito. AFP PHOTO/VLADIMIR RODAS (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl waits for the arrival of Pope Francis before a meeting with the clergy, religious, and seminarians at the Marian National Shrine of 'El Quinche' in Quito on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis is in Ecuador as part of his first South American trip in two years that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO /RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and a peasant smile during a meeting with political, economic and civil leaders at San Francisco Church in Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful await for the arrival of Pope Francis at the church of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis warned against the 'temptation' of 'single leaderships' on Tuesday in front of nearly one million people at an outdoor mass in Ecuador's capital, recently rocked by anti-government protests. AFP PHOTO/LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful await for the arrival of Pope Francis to San Francisco Church for the meeting with civil society members in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is seen before celebrating an open-air mass at the Bicentennial Park in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. The visit of the Argentine-born pontiff comes amid widespread unrest over the socialist policies of President Rafael Correa --who is expected to attend the mass. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets a girl next to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (R) upon arrival at the Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito on July 5, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in Quito Sunday to begin his first South American trip in two years, for an eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay highlighting the plight of the poor on his home continent. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis alights from the aircraft upon his arrival in Quito on July 5, 2015. The pontiff will make a nine-day apostolic trip in South America and visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man kisses Pope Francis's ring as he leaves aboard a small car the Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito on July 5, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in Quito Sunday to begin his first South American trip in two years, for an eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay highlighting the plight of the poor on his home continent. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
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"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 Collins 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.

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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) with small windows. 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."

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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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