Foreign nationals awaiting review

Justices to hear appeals of 2 convictions

November 08, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of foreign nationals held in U.S. prisons could win a new right to challenge their convictions if the Supreme Court rules in their favor in a pair of cases that won a review yesterday.

The two cases, to be heard in March, are the latest to test whether international treaties can carry weight in the U.S. criminal courts.

The justices agreed to hear the appeal of a Mexican citizen who was convicted of the attempted murder of a police officer in Oregon and the appeal of a Honduran national who says he was wrongfully convicted of murdering a man in Virginia.

Both men contend that their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations were violated when they were arrested in the United States. As a result, they say, their convictions should be overturned.

If they win, the ruling could have a broad and unsettling impact in states where large numbers of foreign-born prisoners are held.

In the Vienna Convention, agreed to in 1963, the United States and other signatories pledged to notify each other through their consulates when one of their nationals is arrested. That treaty can be useful for Americans traveling abroad because it gives them the right to contact the U.S. Consulate.

Until recently, the treaty was interpreted merely as establishing an agreement between governments, not a set of rights for individuals. State officials largely ignored the treaty when they arrested and prosecuted foreign nationals in their courts.

But last year, Mexico's government took the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and won an important ruling on behalf of 53 Mexicans on death row in U.S. prisons. Mexican officials said authorities in the states of Texas and California, among others, failed to notify them when their nationals were arrested. They said they would have provided legal help for the Mexican defendants.

The world court ruled that the Vienna Convention gave "individual rights" to foreign nationals and that domestic courts in the United States must "allow the review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence" handed down in these cases.

The Bush administration sidestepped a Supreme Court ruling this year when it told Texas authorities to reconsider the cases at issue in the International Court of Justice's decision.

But now, the Supreme Court said it would decide whether the Vienna Convention "created individually enforceable rights" for the thousands of other foreign nationals held in U.S. prisons.

The Constitution says that "all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land, and judges in every state shall be bound thereby."

In their appeal, lawyers for Moises Sanchez-Llamas said his statements to police should not have been used against him, in part because the Mexican Consulate was not notified and could not provide him with a lawyer.

In the second case, lawyers for Mario Bustillo argue that had prosecutors informed him of his rights, the Honduran government could have helped locate the man Bustillo says committed the murder. They say this violation of his rights under the Vienna Convention entitles him to a new trial.

Lawyers for Oregon and Virginia say the treaty does not give legal rights to foreign nationals, especially not a right to reopen a final criminal conviction.

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