When Lidia Guerrero met with Pope Francis in Rome last year, he 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," she says Francis told her. The short meeting in February 2014 left Guerrero with more hope than she has felt in years about the future of her son, Argentine native Victor Hugo Saldano, who she says is guilty of murder but has been driven to insanity on death row. Death penalty opponents are hoping Francis pressures lawmakers to abolish capital punishment when he visits the US next month, and Guerrero, 67, is praying that the pope intervenes on behalf of Saldano. "I have no certainty that Francis will ask for clemency for my son, but I do have hope," she says. Saldano's execution date has not been scheduled.
Saldano entered the US illegally in the 1990s, and on Nov. 25, 1995, he and a friend, drunk and high on crack cocaine, were seen holding Paul King at gunpoint in a Dallas parking lot. King was later found shot to death. Saldano was sentenced to death in 1996, then again in 2004 after being awarded a new hearing. During the latter sentencing trial, Saldano masturbated twice in the presence of jurors, and prosecutors cited incidents of him smearing feces 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,'" says a law professor who has worked on the case. 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. (Read more death row stories.)