New hearings sought for Mexicans on death row
Bush administration filing response to international criticism
From Bill Mears
CNN's Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush has called for a review of the cases of 51 Mexicans on death row in various state prisons, concluding international law was violated when the men were denied access to their consulates.
The move was announced Tuesday in a legal brief filed with the Supreme Court, which will hear an important appeal in less than two weeks on the rights of foreign prisoners facing execution.
The International Court of Justice, part of the United Nations and based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled earlier last year the United States had violated the rights of those 51 prisoners, in part because officials and prosecutors failed to notify their home countries of their arrest and subsequent trials.
The United States has signed on to an international treaty guaranteeing foreign prisoners access to their consuls, including Americans detained overseas.
By agreeing to allow the Mexican prisoners new hearings, the Justice Department has asserted broad executive authority when it comes to compliance with international law.
"It is for the president, not the courts, to determine whether the United States should comply with the decision, and if so, how," wrote Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement.
Legal briefs filed with the court show 118 foreign nationals from 32 nations await capital punishment in the United States.
Clement said President Bush concluded the 51 Mexican prisoners, mostly in Texas, deserve new hearings.
"Consular assistance is a vital safeguard for Americans abroad, and the government has determined that, unless the United States fulfills its international obligation to achieve compliance" with the ICJ decision, "its ability to secure assistance could be aversely affected."
The appeal pending before the Supreme Court involves Jose Medellin, who was 18 when he participated in the June 1993 gang rape and murder of two Harris County, Texas, girls, 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena. He was later convicted of the crimes and sentenced to death.
Medellin's lawyers claim he was not informed upon his arrest of his right to contact Mexican consular officials. Mexican officials were never able to meet with him before trial.
The Mexican government filed an appeal against the United States in January 2003, alleging violations of international law.
Medellin filed his own appeals based on similar complaints, as well as a claim of ineffective counsel. He has the support of the European Union and several international human rights groups.
Texas officials claim Medellin filed his appeals after his trial, and should not get a new hearing.
Lower federal courts agreed and denied his claims.
The court in recent years has taken on a variety of important cases testing the extent international laws should apply in U.S. courts.
The World Court's ruling condemning the treatment of foreign prisoners held in the United States is not binding in American courts, but the judicial body has been an important arbiter of legal disputes among nations.
About 6,000 Americans are arrested overseas every year, and many rely on access to American consul offices for legal help, according to a group of diplomats and international activists supporting Medellin.
Two other adult males were also sentenced to death along with Medellin, as were two other codefendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime.
Texas officials are expected to reduce the sentences of the younger men, after the court last week ruled unconstitutional the execution of juvenile killers.
The case is Medellin v. Dretke, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, case no. 04-5928.