Mexico Fights U.S. Capital Punishment in U.N. Court

M By Reed Johnson

mEXICO CITY — Simmering tensions between Mexico and the United States over capital punishment may heat up a few more degrees this week as the International Court of Justice considers a Mexican request for stays of execution for 51 of its citizens on U.S. death row. The hearings, which began Tuesday in The Hague, could affect the fate of Mexican citizens in 10 U.S. states, including 28 in California and 16 in Texas.

Lawyers representing the Mexican government are arguing that the United States has repeatedly violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which allows people accused of committing crimes in a foreign country to seek help from their consulates and obtain competent legal counsel in their own language. Until the court rules on the merits of that complaint, Mexico is asking that the United States refrain from executing any Mexicans on death row. The International Court, a branch of the United Nations, has no actual power to enforce its rulings.

In court Tuesday, William Taft, legal adviser to the State Department, argued that Mexico’s request “fails to demonstrate that it is needed, either for the preservation of rights under the Vienna Convention” or “because of the urgency of events.” According to a court transcript, Taft also said that the Mexican request, if upheld, would require the court “to intrude deeply into the entire criminal justice system of the United States.”

Sandra Babcock, a Minneapolis-based lawyer representing Mexico, disagreed.

“It doesn’t harm the United States simply to forbear from injecting lethal substances into people or flipping switches while waiting for a year or so for the courts to decide,” she said in a phone interview. While the court could issue a decision on an injunction this week, the case in its entirety could take months or even years. Mexico wants all 51 convictions reviewed, raising the possibility of new trials or dismissals.

The court previously has found fault with the way the United States treats foreigners accused of crimes, most notably in a 1984 case involving two German brothers, Karl and Walter LaGrand, who were convicted in the murder of a bank teller. Both were executed in 1999 in Arizona.

Two years later, the International Court, in a 14-1 vote, found that the United States had “breached its obligations to Germany and to the LaGrand brothers under the Vienna Convention” by failing to inform the brothers of their right to talk with a German consulate.

In Mexico, the issue has become politically delicate, due to perceptions here that Mexicans tried for murder north of the border are disproportionately likely to face the death penalty. In a recent interview, the president of Mexico’s lower house of Congress, Eric Eber Villanueva Mukul, said that imposing the death penalty on Mexicans in the United States is “an act of discrimination against our countrymen.”

Last summer, President Vicente Fox backed out of a meeting with President Bush at his Texas ranch after Bush refused to commute the death sentence of Javier Suarez Medina, 33, who was on death row for murdering a U.S. drug enforcement agent.

He was put to death in a state prison north of Houston after the Supreme Court denied an 11th-hour appeal from Mexico and Texas Gov. Rick Perry declined Fox’s request to grant a reprieve.

No Mexican court has applied the death penalty since the 1950s, and although permitted under the constitution, capital punishment is not included in the penal code of many Mexican states.