Can Pope Francis Save a Texas Man on Death Row?

One mother seeks divine intervention for her son on death row.

By Joy DiazSeptember 22, 2015 9:00 am| ,

It’s been almost 30 years since Lidia Guerrero last embraced her son. It was in Argentina.

Back then, her teenager Victor Saldano left home. He told her “he wanted to see the world.”

“Estuvo en Brasil, en el Mato Grosso, en Venezuela, en Colombia, en las Guayanas Francesas,” Guerrero says.

He went everywhere from Brazil, 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.

“When your child is accused of something as terrible as murder – it is shameful, it is tough, the joy is gone,” Guerrero says in Spanish.

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 s 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. But, her attorney is. And one day in 2014, he had an idea: “Since we have nowhere else to go,” he told her, “Let’s go to the Pope. He’s from Argentina too – he may advocate on behalf of Victor.” A couple of weeks went by. And Guerrero got a call from her attorney.

“El Papa quiere que vengan, que ustedes vengan a Roma,” Guerrero says. “[Translation] 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, The Pope told her he knew Victor Saldano’s case well.

“Si habre rezado yo por ese cordobecito,” Guerrero says. 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 very successful.

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.”

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’s death row inmate named Darrell Mease.

“I got a letter – death letter – saying ‘January 27 of 1999, Darrell Mease shall suffer death,'” Dease says. “But then, the Missouri Supreme Court found out that Pope John Paul the second 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 Saldanos’ 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,” Burke says. “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.”

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.