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Jose Medellin Executed; Vienna Convention Controversy Lives On

Jose Medellin Executed; Vienna Convention Controversy Lives On

by Matt Clarke

On August 5, 2008 at 9:48 p.m., the State of Texas began the lethal injection that ended the life of Jose E. Medellin. In doing so, it ignored orders from the International Court of Justice at The Hague, more commonly known as the World Court.Medellin was the lead figure in a series of World Court actions taken by Mexico against the United States that centered on the failure of U.S. officials to inform criminal defendants facing the death penalty of their right to contact their embassy, and to inform embassy officials of the detention of their citizens. Such rights are included in the Vienna Convention, an international treaty to which the United States is a signatory.

The Vienna Convention actions by Mexico resulted in the World Court ordering the U.S. to review the cases of 51 Mexican nationals on death rows in various states to determine whether their rights under the Vienna Convention had been violated. [See: PLN, Sept. 2004, p.12]

The governor of Oklahoma commuted the death sentence of one Mexican citizen to life without parole after the World Court ruling was handed down. But Texas took a different approach.

“We don’t really care where you are from; if you commit a heinous and despicable crime you are going to face the ultimate penalty under our laws,” said a spokesperson for Texas Governor Rick Perry. “No foreign national is going to receive any additional protection than a Texas citizen would.”

However, the Vienna Convention – which was ratified by the U.S. Senate and is thus the highest law of the land along with the Constitution – does exactly that. It grants rights to foreign nationals not granted to citizens of Texas or any other state. Therefore, when Mexico learned of Texas’ position, it obtained an injunction from the World Court ordering the U.S. not to execute any of the 51 Mexican nationals on death row before their cases were examined for violations of the Vienna Convention.

President Bush intervened, albeit reluctantly, and directed state officials to review the Vienna Convention cases prior to performing any executions. [See: PLN, Jan. 2006, p.16]. However, Texas challenged Bush’s executive order, and on March 25, 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the order was not binding because the President had no authority over state courts. The World Court’s injunction likewise was not binding on Texas, only on the U.S. government. See: Medellin v. Texas, 128 S.Ct. 1346 (2008).

Texas Congressman Ted Poe provided a blunt assessment of the situation. “The State of Texas has decided that the World Court has no jurisdiction to tell the State of Texas or any other State what to do,” he said on July 17, 2008. “[Medellin] deserves the death penalty, he earned it, and justice demands it, whether the World Court likes it or not. And that’s just the way it is.”

With all of the court actions, presidential orders and controversy, why did Texas proceed with the Medellin execution? One reason was that Medellin had been convicted in the high-profile rape, torture and murder of two teenage girls. Another reason was the upcoming November 2008 elections, which also might explain why H.R. 6481, a bill introduced in Congress to create an enforcement mechanism for World Court rulings, stalled and went nowhere.

“Somebody in Congress may see the value of protecting the treaty obligations and the national interests of the United States and also be concerned about the political fallout for voting for a statute that might be used against them because [they] are perceived as soft on crime,” said Duncan Hollis, an expert in international law at Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law.

The Medellin execution has worried some international relations experts. “Americans who are detained abroad may well lose the critical protection of ensured access to United States consular officers,” American Society of International Law president Lucy Reed told members of Congress.

But Mexico isn’t just interested in enforcing its citizens’ rights under the Vienna Convention; it is also interested in saving their lives. The Mexican government does not recognize the death penalty or even life imprisonment without parole, both of which are viewed as contrary to its philosophy that every person is redeemable. A philosophy enshrined in the Mexican constitution. Therefore, when Mexican citizens face the death penalty in the United States, Mexico pays for their legal defense. Thus far Mexico has hired U.S. lawyers to represent all 51 of its citizens who were sentenced to death.

“The Mexican government has an obligation to defend its citizens abroad,” stated Mexican embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday.

“I truly take my hat off to Mexico for funding this program,” said Denver civil rights attorney David Lane, who was hired by Mexico to defend Juan Quintero, a Mexican national charged with fatally shooting a Houston police officer. Although Quintero was convicted, he did not receive the death penalty. “Defending a death penalty case can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than one million dollars. None of these defendants had any money, and the cases fall to public defenders at taxpayers’ expense,” said Lane.

Lane is also assisting public defenders in Douglas County, Colorado in a capital murder prosecution involving Mexican citizen Jose Luis Rubi-Nava. In September 2006, Rubi-Nava allegedly used his pickup truck to drag his girlfriend to death. His case has not yet gone to trial.

Lane accused Douglas County District Attorney Carol Chambers of violating two international treaties by refusing to allow Rubi-Nava to consult with Mexican counsel and by sending background investigators to Mexico without first obtaining permission. “Mexico views Carol Chambers as a human rights violator,” he said.

And presumably, since Jose Medellin was executed in violation of international law, the State of Texas is an unrepentant murderer.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press,,,, Denver Post, The Echo

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Related legal case

Medellin v. Texas