HOUSTON – A federal court has agreed to review the appeal of an Argentine man who is on death row in Texas for a 1995 killing.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday it will examine whether Victor Saldano, 44, was competent to stand trial and whether his lawyers were deficient for not requesting a competency hearing before he was resentenced to death years after the initial trial.
Saldano, who was in the U.S. illegally, was sentenced to death for the killing of 46-year-old Paul King, who was abducted from a Plano supermarket, robbed and shot.
His case has drawn the attention of Pope Francis, who is also Argentine and has met at least twice with the inmate's mother. The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment.
Saldano was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die in 1996, but a judge later threw out the original sentence because a psychologist improperly testified that Saldano's Hispanic background made him likely to be a future danger, which Texas juries factor into death penalty decisions. The trial's punishment phase was repeated in 2004 and Saldano was again sentenced to die.
In its decision to consider the case, the appeals court wrote that "ample evidence supports an inference of incompetency" and pointed to "numerous instances" of Saldano's incoherent and strange behavior around the time the punishment phase was repeated. Physicians offered various explanations for Saldana's behavior, including his isolation on death row and that he was faking his condition to get drugs.
Lower courts have ruled that the trial court had no obligation to hold a competency hearing.
The appeals court record showed both the trial judge and Saldano's lawyers had concerns about his mental state, but the court's record includes no results of any examinations of Saldano. Defense attorneys never requested a competency hearing and the judge indicated he "had no reason to believe Saldano was legally incompetent," the 5th Circuit wrote.
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, made a strategic decision at the resentencing phase to not introduce evidence of Saldano's mental condition. Instead, they stressed that Saldana didn't have a prior criminal record, that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and that it was a companion, Jorge Chavez, who came up with the idea to commit the crime.
Chavez is serving a life prison term.
The appeals court has given Saldano's attorneys 30 days to present written arguments. State attorneys then will have 15 days to respond.