We must ensure the rights of Mexican death row inmate
May 27, 2005
The Supreme Court recently did a disservice to our legal system by turning aside an appeal by a Mexican citizen on death row in Texas.
Jose Medellin argued that he and 50 other Mexicans should have their death sentences overturned because they were improperly denied legal counsel from their consulates, which is in violation of international law.
Medellin was one of five gang members convicted of raping and murdering Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in 1993 when he was 18. Many will cringe at the thought that a man convicted of this brutal crime would complain about his rights. Yet, our legal system depends on the fair administration of such rights.
His court-appointed lawyer was suspended from practicing law during the case because of ethics violations, according to The New York Times. The Mexican government says it would have provided Medellin with competent legal representation if it had been informed of his trial.
Medellin's case is based on the Vienna Convention, ratified by the United States in 1963. The treaty provides that foreigners detained in another country have the right to ask for assistance from their consulates. The United States supported this as a way to protect American nationals arrested in other countries.
Since 1999, the United Nations has urged countries that maintain the death penalty to adhere to the principle of consular access. Mexico does not have the death penalty.
Last year, the International Court of Justice, which is part of the United Nations, ruled that the United States had violated the convention in the case of Medellin and the 50 other Mexicans.
The court also ruled that Medellin should be given another sentencing hearing. In February, President Bush ordered the Texas state court to hold new hearings for Medellin and the others.
But Texas says the president has no right to tell it what to do.
Meanwhile, the administration has announced that the United States is withdrawing from the section of the treaty that recognizes the court's authority when signatory nations do not comply with the Vienna Treaty.
That is a shortsighted decision.
Some say no one should tell our country what to do. But this is just foolish bravado.
The United States ought to hold itself out as an example to the world. We are members of an international community, and it is important that we follow the laws to which we agreed.
Yes, it is hard to have sympathy for a convicted murderer and rapist like Medellin, but it is important that we ensure everyone's rights -- even his. And it's important that we recognize that this case is about much more than Medellin.
It is about keeping the integrity of our legal system.
And it is about being a respected member of the international community.
Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas. She can be reached at email@example.com.