Supreme Court takes on major international death penalty case
December 10, 2004
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court waded into a fierce international debate Friday over how the United States prosecutes foreigners in death penalty cases, agreeing to hear the case of a Mexican man in an unexpected move that expands the court’s examination of fairness in capital punishment.
The justices already are considering the constitutionality of executing killers who committed their crimes as juveniles.
The latest case involves a practice that has angered many other nations: failure by local prosecutors and police officers to tell alien murder suspects of their right to seek legal help from their consulates or embassies.
The 1963 Vienna Convention, which the Senate ratified in 1969, requires such notice for Americans detained abroad and foreigners arrested in the United States.
About 6,000 Americans are arrested or detained each year in other countries and need consular help to “navigate and understand an unfamiliar, and perhaps hostile, legal system,” the justices were told by former U.S. diplomats and others. They said Americans would suffer should the United States fail to set a good example.
The United States was accused of violating the treaty and lost the case this year in the World Court at The Hague, Netherlands. The court, the United Nations’ highest judiciary, ruled that American officials should give 51 Mexicans on death row “meaningful review” of their convictions and sentences.
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The World Court resolves disputes between nations but cannot force the United States to follow its decisions.
Still, the Supreme Court decided to use the appeal of one of the Mexicans on death row, Jose Medellin, to decide whether U.S. courts should give the convicted murderers a second chance.
Lawyers for Medellin told justices in a filing that failure to side with him “would send a message to the world that we preach, but do not practice, adherence to the law.”
Medellin is one of 118 foreigners from 32 countries on death row in the United States. He is supported in his appeal by dozens of countries, legal groups and human rights organizations, as well as former American diplomats and the European Union.
Texas attorneys argued it was too late for Medellin to bring the challenge, because he failed at his trial to file objections that the Mexican government was not told of his arrest.
Medellin was one of five gang members sentenced to death for raping and murdering Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in Houston in 1993.
The girls were killed after they came upon a railroad trestle where members of a gang known as the “Black and Whites” were celebrating a new member’s initiation. Medellin was 18 at the time of the murders, and Texas prosecutors claimed he instigated the killings and later boasted about it.
Justices were told that Medellin’s court-appointed lawyer was suspended from practicing law for ethics violations during the case, and he failed to call any witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial.
A lawyer for the Mexican government, Sandra Babcock, said that country would have made sure that Medellin had a competent lawyer and money for experts and investigators had it known about the 1994 trial.
The Supreme Court has refused previously to consider the cases of foreign nationals who claimed they were not given a chance to seek help from their home countries.
Last November, a divided court turned down the appeal of Mexican national Osbaldo Torres. “It surely is reasonable to presume that most foreign nationals are unaware of the provisions of the Vienna Convention (as are, it seems, many local prosecutors),” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote at the time.
Court members have looked increasingly at international opinion in formulating their rulings. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a likely key voter in the Medellin case, said in an October speech that judges must realize the importance of international law. “International law is a help in our search for a more peaceful world,” she said.
Oklahoma’s governor commuted Torres’ sentence to life in prison without parole after the ruling by the World Court, officially known as the International Court of Justice.
The case is Medellin v. Dretke, 04-5928.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/
Death Penalty Information Center statistics: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did198&scid31Reported -DROW