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Texas executes Mexican man despite White House concerns

The Obama administration wanted time to consider the impact this execution could have on other foreign citizens living in the US – and US citizens abroad.

Humberto Leal's relative pray at home in Guadalupe, Mexico, on 7 July 2011.
Humberto Leal's relative pray at home in Guadalupe, Mexico, on 7 July 2011.
Image: AP Photo/Hans Maximo Musielik

THE US SUPREME Court refused to block the state of Texas from executing a Mexican citizen despite a White House-backed appeal that claimed the case could affect other foreigners arrested in the US as well as Americans in legal trouble abroad.

Humberto Leal was executed yesterday evening for the 1994 rape and murder of a San Antonio teenager after his attorneys, supported also by the Mexican government and other diplomats, unsuccessfully sought a stay. They argued that Leal was denied help from his home country that could have helped him avoid the death penalty.

From the death chamber, Leal repeatedly apologised and then shouted “Viva Mexico!” as the lethal drugs began taking effect. The 38-year-old mechanic was sentenced to death for killing 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, whose body was found hours after the two left a street party.

International treaty

Leal was just a toddler when he and his family moved to the US from Monterrey, Mexico, but his citizenship became a key element of his attorneys’ appeals. They said police never told him following his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty.

Mexico’s government, President Barack Obama’s administration and others wanted the Supreme Court to stay the execution to allow Congress time to consider legislation that would require court reviews for condemned foreign nationals who aren’t offered the help of their consulates. The court rejected the request 5-4.

But questions remain over how Leal’s execution may affect relations between Mexico and the US — and Texas, the country’s busiest death penalty state that shares a roughly 1,250-mile border with Mexico.

Leal’s relatives who gathered in Guadalupe, Mexico, burned a T-shirt with an image of the American flag as a sign of protest. Leal’s uncle, Alberto Rodriguez, criticized the US justice system and the Mexican government, saying “there is a God who makes us all pay.”

Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the government condemned Leal’s execution and sent a note of protest to the U.S. State Department. The ministry said Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan attempted to contact Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who refused to speak on the phone.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the execution.

In denying Leal’s appeal, the Supreme Court’s five more conservative justices doubted that executing Leal would cause grave international consequences. “Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be,” the majority said. The court’s four liberal-leaning justices said they would have granted the stay.

‘Violation’

Leal’s attorney Sandra L Babcock said that with consular help her client could have shown that he was not guilty. But, she said, “this case was not just about one Mexican national on death row in Texas.

“The execution of Mr Leal violates the United States’ treaty commitments, threatens the nation’s foreign policy interests, and undermines the safety of all Americans abroad.”

Prosecutors said Congress was unlikely to pass the legislation and Leal’s appeals were simply an attempt to evade justice for a gruesome murder.

Leal’s argument that he should have received consular legal aid wasn’t new — Texas has executed other condemned foreign nationals who raised similar challenges, most recently in 2008.

Leal’s appeals, however, focused on legislation introduced last month in the US Senate by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. The bill would bring the US into compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provision regarding the arrests of foreign nationals. It would ensure court reviews for condemned foreigners to determine if a lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases.

“Americans detained overseas rely on their access to US consulates every day,” Leahy said after the Supreme Court decision was announced. “If we expect other countries to abide by the treaties they join, the United States must also honor its obligations.”

The Obama administration took the unusual step of intervening in a state murder case last week when Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr joined Leal’s appeal, asking the high court to halt the execution and give Congress at least six months to consider Leahy’s bill.

The Mexican government and other diplomats also contended that Leal’s case needed to be thoroughly reviewed. Some warned his execution would violate the treaty provision and could endanger Americans in countries that deny them consular help.

Measures similar to Leahy’s have failed at least twice in recent congressional sessions. The Texas Attorney General’s office, opposing the appeals, pointed to those failures in its Supreme Court arguments and said “legislative relief was not likely to be forthcoming.”

Stephen Hoffman, an assistant attorney general, said evidence against Leal was strong.

“At this point, it is clear that Leal is attempting to avoid execution by overwhelming the state and the courts with as many meritless lawsuits and motions as humanly possible,” Hoffman said.

Prosecutors said Sauceda was drunk and high on cocaine the night she was killed, and that Leal offered to take her home. Witnesses said Leal drove off with her around 5 a.m. Some partygoers found her body later that morning and called police. There was evidence Sauceda had been bitten, strangled and raped, and bludgeoned with a large chunk of asphalt.

Sauceda’s mother, Rachel Terry, told San Antonio television station KSAT her family already had suffered too long: ”A technicality doesn’t give anyone a right to come to this country and rape, torture and murder anyone.”

In 2005, President George W Bush agreed with an International Court of Justice ruling that Leal and 50 other Mexican-born inmates nationwide should be entitled to new hearings in US courts to determine if their consular rights were violated. The Supreme Court later overruled Bush.

- AP

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