Monday, 28 July 2008
Federal officials try to block Texas execution to allow world court review of case
12:00 AM CDT on Monday, July 28, 2008
By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News
Fourteen years and numerous judicial reviews have passed since José Medellin was sentenced to die after confessing to the brutal gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston.
That's long enough, state officials say. It's time to carry out the sentence.
But defense attorneys, and an unusual coalition of federal officials, including no less than the attorney general and secretary of state, say if his Aug. 5 execution is not stayed, so Mr. Medellin's case can be reviewed one more time at the behest of the International Court of Justice, Texas will be rushing to judgment and endangering Americans abroad.
"Put simply, the United States seeks the help of the State of Texas," Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a letter released by defense attorneys.
Federal authorities are scrambling to bring the U.S. into compliance with the Vienna Convention, a treaty signed decades ago giving jurisdiction to the world court in cases concerning consular access. The world court first called for additional review for dozens of Mexican citizens condemned to die without access to their consular officials in 2004 and repeated the call in another decision July 16.
"We respectfully request that Texas take the steps necessary to give effect to the ...decision," the June letter says.
President Bush tried to resolve the issue three years ago by ordering states to review the cases of 51 Mexican nationals on death row, including Mr. Medellin, as directed by the International Court. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Mr. Bush overstepped his authority and that individual states are not bound by the international court decision.
The Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for Harris County prosecutors to seek an execution date for Mr. Medellin.
But two weeks ago, a bill was introduced in Congress by Reps. Howard Berman, D-California, and Zoe Lofgren, D-California, to require states to come into compliance with the International Court order. Defense attorneys and officials are pushing to delay Mr. Medellin's execution until that bill can be considered.
"Texas has an obligation to abide by this commitment of the United States just like everybody else, and Texas should allow Congress an adequate time to pass the legislation," said Donald Donovan, Mr. Medellin's attorney.
Concern about the impending execution and its possible ramifications is so high that a group of state department officials traveled to Texas to lobby the governor's general counsel. Some international law experts say Americans traveling abroad who are arrested may suffer if the U.S. does not abide by the treaty.
But Gov. Perry remains resolute. Spokesman Robert Black admits the federal government has "a big sort of dilemma" because the United States as a whole is obligated to abide by international treaty obligations, but individual states are not.
Still, "the governor isn't feeling any pressure on this simply because he is here to uphold the laws of the state of Texas and not some foreign court in Europe," he said.
"Two young girls were brutally gang raped and murdered, and the governor is not willing to say that any foreign national is going to get any additional protection under the law than a Texas citizen would," Mr. Black said.
Mr. Medellin, 33, was afforded the same rights in his case, including a court-appointed attorney, as any American citizen. In 1994, he was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Elizabeth Pena, 16. Another girl, Jennifer Ertman, 14, was also raped and murdered. The girls stumbled into a gang initiation.
Despite the horrific nature of the crime, defense attorney Donovan said it "would be fundamentally unjust" for Gov. Perry to not respect the commitment made under the treaty "by the American people as a whole."
"In Texas, like the rest of the United States, a deal is a deal," he said.
And, he added, Americans overseas could face consequences. "I think the people of Texas, just like the rest of the American people, would not want Texas to do anything that would jeopardize the safety of Americans living, traveling, and working abroad."
Despite Mr. Perry's determination not to halt the execution, Mr. Donovan seems confident the lethal injection will be stopped. "For Texas to go forward would be profoundly wrong," he said. "And we believe if Texas insists on going forward with this execution that a Texas court or a federal court will step in, including the Supreme Court."
Others doubt the political pressure or legal maneuvers will have much effect at either the state or national level.
"There may be some attempt at having a political solution but Texas will be a very reluctant partner in that," said Dr. Kimi King, a lawyer and associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas.
She believes the August execution will proceed "because there's simply too great of a political culture inside Texas that is supportive of the death penalty, and there is more mileage to be gained from opposing the request to stay it than there would be in trying to support it."
Chuck Cooper, a Washington attorney who filed a brief supporting Texas in the Medellin Supreme Court case, said he doubted Congressional efforts would amount to much either. He could see "some fringe California congressman offering a bill to do this," he said, "but I can't imagine Congress as a whole passing a statute."
Treaty obligations are important, Mr. Cooper said, but "the obligation to fulfill treaty requirements simply gives way when it would violate constitutional laws."