- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider whether the U.S. government has illegally held a Mexican national on death row in Texas since 1994 for raping and murdering two teenage girls.

The justices said they will hear an appeal by Jose Medellin, one of 51 Mexicans on death row who argue their trials in U.S. courts were unfair because they were denied the right to legal help from the Mexican government in defending themselves.

The case is at the center of an international debate over the legal rights of foreigners charged with felonies in the United States, and of Americans charged with crimes in other countries.

In March, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, the highest judicial body of the United Nations, ordered the United States to re-examine the cases of the 51 Mexicans, all of whom are convicted murderers.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Mexico, which said the death row inmates were denied their rights as defined by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international treaty ratified by about 160 countries, including the United States.

Medellin, who was 18 at the time of his arrest, was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He was one of five Houston gang members sentenced to death for repeatedly raping, then murdering Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in a city park in 1993.

Texas courts denied multiple appeals filed by Medellin. But his case got new life in 2003, when the Mexican government filed the lawsuit at The Hague. It reportedly learned of the case through letters Medellin wrote from death row.

The ICJ has authority from the United Nations to resolve legal disputes between countries, but its power to enforce its ruling on the United States is less clear.

“The issue is whether U.S. courts will accept rulings from an international court,” said Kevin R. Sullivan, a Washington lawyer who is the lead attorney on a brief filed with the Supreme Court by several human rights and legal organizations on Medellin’s behalf.

A separate brief filed by the European Union chastises the United States for denying foreigners access to legal help from their home countries.

“The right to consular access is a right protected under customary international law and must therefore be observed,” the brief says, adding the Vienna Convention “is a key form of protection for foreign nationals.”

Mr. Sullivan agreed, saying the treaty also is a way of making sure U.S. citizens are given fair treatment if arrested in foreign countries. An estimated 2,500 Americans are arrested in other countries each year, according to U.S. State Department figures.

The Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the Medellin case may signal a growing willingness of the nation’s most powerful judges to further engage in the debate over international law and how it applies to the United States.

During a speech before a conference of prestigious French lawyers in Washington last month, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer insisted on the need for the United States to better understand international law.

Justice Breyer said at the conference, which was organized by the Paris Bar Association, that more than 10 percent of the 80 cases argued before the Supreme Court last year required the justices to consider questions of international law.

Oral arguments in the Medellin case are expected next year. If the justices agree he was denied his international rights, Medellin’s sentence may be overturned, and he likely would get a new trial.

Meanwhile, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which publishes information and analysis of issues related to capital punishment, indicates there are 118 foreign nationals from 32 countries on death rows in U.S. prisons.

According to the DPIC, none is currently scheduled for execution, although the U.S. government has executed 21 foreign nationals since 1998.

“All indications are that none of these executed individuals were informed by U.S. authorities upon arrest of their right to have their consulate notified of their detention, as required under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” the organization said.

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