Selena Forever

The Selena Trial

The Houston Chronicles Files

Selena jury gives killer life sentence

Saldivar to serve 30 years before parole is possible

By PATTY REINERT Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle

9:18 PM 10/26/1995

As jurors deliberated nine hours over two days to decide her fate, Yolanda Saldivar became convinced she would get life in prison for the murder of Tejano star Selena Quintanilla Perez. The jury dealt that final blow Thursday afternoon. Saldivar, 35, who had been crying off and on all morning Thursday, hung her head and sobbed when the sentence was read at 2:45 p.m. She will have to serve at least 30 years before she can be considered for parole.

Saldivar's parents and siblings, seated behind her in the courtroom, cried uncontrollably. Before formally sentencing her, state District Judge Mike Westergren asked Saldivar if she wanted to say anything. She looked at the judge and politely mumbled "No sir"through her tears. Once the jury was dismissed, security officers allowed Saldivar's parents to approach the defense table, where they tearfully embraced their youngest daughter. Selena's family showed no reaction to the sentence. Her widower, 26-year-old Chris Perez, kept his back turned to Saldivar and her family as her sisters wailed and hugged each other.

The jury of six men and six women declined to speak to reporters, but asked to talk to Selena's family and lawyers from both sides before leaving. The Quintanillas and Perez reluctantly mingled with jurors, thanking them for their work on the case. The family was then surrounded by security officers and quickly escorted from the building. They refused to comment on the sentence, as did the Saldivar family.

A couple hundred Selena fans, who kept a vigil outside the courthouse all week, cheered and honked their horns when they learned of the sentence. Hours later, they were still celebrating the decision. Saldivar, who was dressed Thursday in a white suit, was tense and tearful awaiting the verdict, but honored dozens of requests from spectators and the media to autograph their courtroom passes. Defense lawyer Patricia Saum, who sat at the defense table with her, said afterward that Saldivar had been convinced she would get a life sentence. "She kept talking about that, and I was trying to say it's a good sign that they're taking this long," Saum said. "Unfortunately, she was right and I was wrong."

Saldivar's lead lawyer, Doug Tinker, described his client as very nervous when the jury indicated it had reached a decision. "When we were waiting for them to come in, she was just saying, `Oh Mr. Tinker. Oh Mr. Tinker. Oh Mr. Tinker,'" he said. "She's scared to death that she will be harmed wherever she goes." Both Saldivar and Tinker received several death threats before and during the trial. Tinker said Saldivar will appeal and he will assist her if she wants. Meanwhile, he said, Saldivar is hopeful she will be sent to a prison where her parents and six brothers and sisters can visit her. "I would also like to see if there is some way she can practice her skills as a nurse while she's in prison," Tinker added.

On Wednesday, he said Saldivar still has hopes of finding eventual peace. "She knows that someday she and Selena will be together again in heaven," he said. Prosecutors said they were confident that jurors, who found Saldivar guilty after deliberating two hours and 20 minutes on Monday, would return a stiff sentence. "I think they were always considering the most serious punishment available," said Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez. "Whenever they're considering a life sentence, I would hope that they would take their time and think about it very seriously.

It shows it was not a snap judgment." Saldivar, who founded the Selena Fan Club and eventually managed the singer's beauty salons and boutiques, shot Selena in the back at a Corpus Christi motel on March 31. Selena's family says the shooting occurred just as the singer was planning to fire Saldivar. They have accused the killer of stealing more than $30,000 from Selena's fan club and businesses. Saldivar claims she accidentally shot her best friend while trying to commit suicide, and based her defense on that theory throughout the three-week trial. Because Saldivar has no previous criminal record, the jury was allowed to consider a sentence ranging from probation to life in prison.

Prosecutors had asked for the maximum; Saldivar's lawyers had sought probation. Tinker said jurors told him there was one holdout throughout the two days of deliberations. He declined to identify the juror but said he apparently voted for probation to begin with, then added years to the sentence as the other 11 jurors refused to budge. "He finally ended up giving everything," Tinker said. Tinker said the holdout juror told him he did not believe the testimony of Corpus Christi police Detective Paul Rivera, the lead investigator in the murder case who took Saldivar's confession after she ended a 91/2-hour standoff outside the Days Inn where the shooting took place.

A Texas Ranger who monitored the taking of Saldivar's statement through a mirrored window at the police station, testified that he was concerned Rivera omitted Saldivar's contention that the shooting was accidental. Ranger Robert Garza said he heard Saldivar's explanation for the shooting, then later noticed she hesitated to sign the confession, complaining that Rivera had left out the word "accidental." Garza said that when he asked Rivera about it later, the detective said Saldivar had tried to change her story after he got her to admit intentionally shooting Selena. "Apparently (the juror) didn't need to believe Rivera to find her guilty, but tried to hold out for a lighter sentence," Tinker said.

Valdez said he and assistant district attorneys Mark Skurka and Elissa Sterling realized this week that more work needs to be done before they can take an embezzlement case against Saldivar to a Corpus Christi grand jury. The prosecutors spent most of the day Tuesday trying to convince Westergren to allow witnesses to testify on the allegations during the sentencing phase of Saldivar's murder trial. After several state witnesses testified away from the jury that Saldivar had been stealing money from Selena's boutiques in the months preceding the singer's death, the judge reluctantly agreed to allow jurors to consider the evidence.

When the jury returned Wednesday morning to hear the testimony, however, prosecutors abandoned the idea. Valdez said Thursday he is committed to seeking embezzlement charges against Saldivar, but said he is no longer sure of the time frame. "We learned that we have a little more investigating to do," he said.