Supreme Court consents to hear appeal of Mexican on death row

Texas case addresses foreigners' rights to help from native countries

December 11, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Taking up a conflict between the world court in The Hague, Netherlands, and America's use of the death penalty, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether foreigners who are charged with serious crimes in the United States have a right to legal help from their native countries.

If the answer is yes, the outcome could upset the convictions of 118 murderers who are on death rows.

Yesterday's brief announcement could signal a shift within the Supreme Court on the issue of whether state officials must abide by international treaties that were agreed to by the United States.

The justices had steered clear of that question and regularly turned away death row inmates who raised it. But a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice has apparently persuaded the Supreme Court to take another look.

The case might also put the Bush administration and its nominee for attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, in an awkward spot.

As the legal counsel to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gonzales brushed aside objections that Texas prosecutors had failed to inform Mexican nationals of their rights under international law. In one legal memo issued just before the 1997 execution of Irineo Montoya, Gonzales said, "Since the state of Texas is not a signatory to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, we believe it is inappropriate to ask Texas to determine whether a breach [of that treaty required action by state officials]."

Next year, as the nation's top law enforcement official, Gonzales and his Justice Department would advise the Supreme Court on whether U.S. authorities believe a violation of the international treaty by Texas officials calls into doubt the legality of a death sentence meted out to a Mexican national.

Amnesty International USA applauded the court's decision to hear the case. "The entire world is watching, and it is time for the United States to abide by its binding international obligations," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of the group's program to abolish the death penalty.

The treaty at issue is not controversial.

In 1963, the United States played the leading role in the creation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. It said consular officials must be notified "without delay" when one of their nationals was arrested by a foreign government. The embassy also had a right to offer legal assistance to the citizen who was under arrest.

This treaty gave Americans protection when they traveled abroad. But it also protected foreigners - including longtime immigrants - who were living in the United States.

Those treaty obligations have been widely ignored in the United States. Murder suspects in states such as California, Texas or Arizona might not be citizens of the United States, but local officials have not assumed that that fact triggered a duty to notify a foreign government of an arrest.

Lawyers for several inmates who faced execution raised this issue in their last appeals, but the federal courts said there was no remedy for this oversight.

Early last year, the government of Mexico took the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which is commonly called the world court.

It has jurisdiction to decide disputes under international law, as well as the treaties that were entered into by the member states.

Mexico brought a claim on behalf of 53 Mexican natives being held on U.S. state death rows. It contended that U.S. authorities had violated the Vienna Convention by not informing the Mexican nationals of their rights and by failing to notifying the Mexican consulate that these persons were being held.

On March 31, the world court ruled for Mexico. It held that the Vienna Convention gave "individual rights" to foreign nationals. While it refused to nullify the convictions of these inmates, it ruled that the domestic courts must "allow the review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence by taking into account the violation of rights set forth in the Convention."

That ruling put the matter back before state officials and federal courts across America. On May 13, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of one of the Mexicans, Osbaldo Torres. A day later, Gov. Brad Henry commuted his sentence to life in prison.

But a week later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to even consider the issue when it was raised by Texas inmate Jose Medellin. He was convicted and sentenced to die in 1993 for a gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston.

Local officials admitted they had not notified the Mexican consulate when he was being tried, nor did they inform Medellin that he had a right to legal help from Mexican authorities. During his trial, he was represented by a court-appointed lawyer who shortly afterward was suspended for unrelated ethics violations.

Medellin's appeals to a federal judge and U.S. appellate court were unsuccessful. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court in August.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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