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Can Pope Francis Save a Texas Man on Death Row?

Benhur Arcayan/Wikimedia Commons
The Pope's historic visit to the U.S. may help a Texas man on death row.

From Texas Standard:

It's been almost 30 years since Lidia Guerrero last embraced her son in Argentina. Back then, her teenager Victor Saldano was a teenager. He left home, telling her "he wanted to see the world."

"Estuvo en Brasil, en el Mato Grosso, en Venezuela, en Colombia, en las Guayanas Francesas," she says.

He went everywhere from Brasil to Venezuela to the French Guyanas. Every so often, he'd send postcards saying he was well.

But in 1996 Lidia Guerrero got a call saying her son was not well. In fact, he was in Texas – accused of murder and facing the death penalty.

She says: "Es muy duro tener un hijo acusado de asesinato – en fin – de un delito tan grave – es tremendo y vergonzante – la alegria – se pierde." ("When your child is accused of something as terrible as murder – it is shameful, it is tough, the joy is gone.")

Sometimes the hope is gone as well.

But not for Guerrero. Since her son's death sentence in the 1995 killing of Paul Ray King in Collin County, Guerrero has been praying for a miracle. She fears he may be guilty — but she prays to hold him again in Argentina where he could spend his life behind bars.

Guerrero is a woman of faith, but not a Catholic. Her attorney is, though, and one day in 2014, he had an idea. "Since we have nowhere else to go, let’s go to the Pope,” he said to her. “He's from Argentina too – he may advocate on behalf of Victor." A couple of weeks went by, and then Guerrero got word from her attorney:

"El Papa quiere que vengan, que ustedes vengan a Roma."

(“The Pope wants us to go to Rome.”)

Guerrero is elderly and poor — she's always been poor. So, how could she make it all the way to Rome? When friends and relatives heard that the Pope wanted to meet Guerrero, they scraped together money for her airplane ticket and room and board. At their meeting in Rome, Pope Francis told her that he knew Victor Saldano's case well:

"Si habre rezado yo por ese cordobecito.”

He even said he's prayed multiple times on Victor's behalf.

That strengthened Guerrero's faith. She knows a figure like Francis' carries a lot of weight in Texas, especially with Catholic Governor Greg Abbott.

But papal interventions when it comes to death row inmates have not been successful historically.

During his papacy, John Paul II often spoke against the death penalty. He raised it during his 1993 U.S. tour.

"If you want equal justice and freedom, then America, defend life," he said in a speech.

At the time, some argued the Pope was then speaking against abortion. But during a later visit in 1999, he was unambiguous, directly speaking against capital punishment and effectively sparing the life of a Missouri death row inmate Darrell Mease.

"I got a letter – death letter – saying January 27 of 1999 Darrell Mease shall suffer death,” Mease says. “But then, the Missouri Supreme Court found out that Pope John Paul II was coming to Missouri that very day, so they didn't want to execute me that very day, so they changed the date to February.”

Mease's sentence was commuted to life without parole.

He's the only person in the U.S. whose life has been spared through papal intervention.

But that doesn't mean it can't happen again.

John Burke is a Catholic scholar with St. Edwards University. He says there are many arguments Governor Abbott may consider even beyond a papal appeal to spare Saldano’s life on moral grounds.

"The popularity of Francis, and the growing Latino population and its impact politically in the state of Texas – a large percentage of that population is either of Catholic background or Pentecostal background – and so, just speaking in political terms there's a political self-interest for wanting to – at least consider – to move someone from death to life without parole,” Burke says.

For her part, Lidia Guerrero's faith still stands strong. But, the mother of Texas death row inmate Victor Saldano says she'll give all glory to God when her son's life is spared.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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