Attorneys for death row inmate Humberto Leal, along with the Mexican government, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block his lethal injection scheduled for July 7, saying the execution could jeopardize a crucial international agreement that protects Americans abroad.
Leal, a Mexican national convicted in the grisly rape and murder of a Southside teenage girl in 1995, was never given access to legal help from the Mexican consulate during his initial trial and sentencing – a breach of the Vienna Convention granting consular access to nationals arrested in foreign countries.
Leal’s lawyers argue that had he been given access to the Mexican consulate he never would have landed on death row [See "Illegal Injections" May 25, 2011]. Over the past month, a long list of former top U.S. officials, judges, military leaders and diplomats have urged Texas authorities to step in and stay the execution, saying the U.S. has an obligation to fix the error and review Leal’s case before moving forward.
While Leal’s attorneys insist the capital murder case against him was mired in questionable evidence, the widespread objection to Leal’s fast-approaching execution is simpler. If Leal’s execution continues as planned, many say, it may very well embolden other countries to disregard the consular rights of Americans arrested abroad.
Among the voices calling for a stay of execution is Billy Hayes, an American tourist whose detention in a Turkish prison led to the book and movie “Midnight Express.” In a letter he sent to Gov. Rick Perry this month, Hayes wrote that having U.S. diplomats and legal experts on hand to navigate a foreign legal system was invaluable throughout his ordeal.
“I fear that if the U.S. does not fully observe its consular treaty obligations, then other countries will reciprocate,” Hayes wrote. “That would be a tragedy and disaster for so many vulnerable, frightened American citizens – including countless Texans – who find themselves arrested in a foreign country.”
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has filed legislation that would iron out Leal’s case and others like it by requiring a federal review. But the bill, filed just this month, comes too late to impact Leal’s case unless either the Supreme Court or Texas authorities step in and stop the upcoming execution.
Last week, San Antonio U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia denied a request from Leal’s attorneys to block the execution.
And while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday also denied Leal’s request for a stay, three of the court’s judges issued a concurring opinion urging Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant a reprieve until “legislation passes that finally implements our indisputable treaty obligations and provides a remedy for [Leal’s] right under international law.”
Sandra Babcock, Leal’s lawyer and a Northwestern University law professor, has said a federal review would allow her to present what she considers glaring errors in the case against her client, flushing out any lingering questions over the 1994 murder. Leal’s initial defense, she says, was hopelessly deficient and failed to challenge the evidence against him. Once Babcock and the Mexican consulate dug into the case, they found other revelations that could have swayed a jury away from the death penalty, she says – evidence of frontal lobe brain damage that left Leal mildly mentally retarded and sexual abuse by a local priest when he was a child [See "Claims of priest abuse result in calls to stay execution" June 15, 2011].
If the High Court declines to issue a stay and hear the case, Leal's fate rests in the hands of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and ultimately Gov. Perry, and both have yet to make a decision on the case. Though he could not be reached for comment Wednesday, previous statements from Perry's office make the governor's view of the case rather clear: on Tuesday, a Perry spokeswoman told the New York Times, "If you commit the most heinous of crimes in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty under our laws, as in this case."
- Michael Barajas, firstname.lastname@example.org