Texas appears poised to execute a death row inmate entangled in a growing international controversy, despite objections from the Obama administration and a long list of former U.S. officials claiming the execution flies in the face of a crucial international agreement.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Tuesday declined to halt the execution of Humberto Leal, convicted in the brutal 1994 rape and murder of a Southside teenage girl. Leal, a Mexican national set to die by lethal injection on Thursday, was never given access to legal help from the Mexican consulate during the initial trial and punishment phase of his case, a breach of the Vienna Convention granting consular access to nationals arrested in foreign countries.
For more background on Leal’s case, and the lingering conflict over consular rights, see “Illegal injections: How Texas is breaking the law, one execution at a time.”
Should the U.S. Supreme Court also decline to issue a stay and hear the case, Leal’s fate rests in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry. While Perry has yet to reach an official decision, the chance of a 30-day stay appears slim given the repeat line
from the governor’s office that “If you commit the most heinous of crimes in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty under our laws.”
Leal’s lawyers have argued that access to his consulate would have prevented a death row sentence, and over the past month a long list of former 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 the case. While Leal’s attorneys claim the capital murder case against him was mired in questionable evidence, the majority of those asking Perry to stay the execution worry that Texas’ continued refusal to comply with the international convention may very well embolden other countries to abandon the consular-rights treaty, which protects Americans arrested abroad every day.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont last month filed a bill that would iron out Leal’s case and others like it by requiring a federal review - there are 50 other Mexican nationals on death row in the U.S. convicted without access to their consulate. But the bill comes too late to impact Leal’s case, and his lawyers, along with the Obama administration and the Mexican government, have asked the High Court to block the imminent execution so Leal can benefit from the law should it pass. While the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week also denied Leal’s request for a stay, three of the court’s judges issued a concurring opinion urging Perry to halt the execution until “legislation passes that finally implements our indisputable treaty obligations and provides a remedy for [Leal’s] right under international law.”
The state has maintained that Leal's push to remedy the consular-rights issue is just the latest in a long string of unsuccessful appeals since his 1995 conviction, all meant to delay the inevitable.
Still, 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 brutal 1994 murder. Leal’s initial defense, she says, was hopelessly lacking and failed to challenge the evidence against him. Once Babcock and the Mexican consulate took over, they found other revelations that might 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
Babcock said in a statement Tuesday, “The decision as to whether Mr. Leal’s life should be spared now lies with the United States Supreme Court, which can issue a stay of execution, or with Governor Rick Perry, who has the power to issue a 30-day reprieve. Mr. Leal’s execution should be halted to affirm the U.S. commitment to the rule of law and uphold his constitutional right to remain alive while Congress is considering action that would directly benefit his case.”
UPDATE (6:43 p.m., 6/07/11):
Texas executed Humberto Leal Thursday night after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly rejected a White House-backed appeal to delay his lethal injection. The Obama administration and others had asked the High Court to delay Leal’s execution so Congress could consider legislation that would require courts to review the cases of foreign death row inmates convicted without receiving legal help from their consulates. Leal’s immediate execution, the administration said, jeopardizes a crucial international agreement that grants consular rights to Americans arrested abroad every day. Shortly before today's execution, the court’s majority wrote, “We are doubtful that it is ever appropriate to stay a lower court judgment in light of unenacted legislation.” But in a dissenting opinion, four of the justices contended, “It is difficult to see how the State’s interest in the immediate execution of an individual convicted of capital murder 16 years ago can outweigh the considerations that support additional delay perhaps only until the end of the summer.”
Sandra Babcock, Leal’s attorney, said in a statement: “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. That is why the U.S. Solicitor General, former diplomats, military leaders, and Americans detained overseas were among those who joined together to call for a stay of execution.”
— Michael Barajas, firstname.lastname@example.org