Justices hear case on rights of foreigners
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Mar. 29, 2005
Dave Montgomery


WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court was asked Monday to grant a Mexican's appeal of his murder conviction in Texas because he wasn't told of his right to contact his nation's consular officers after his arrest, contrary to an international treaty that America had signed.

The case is diplomatically sensitive and raises complex issues of federal, state and international law, the death penalty and America's obligations to the World Court under the 42-year-old treaty.

Jose Ernesto Medellin sits on death row in Texas, convicted of murder in the 1993 gang rape and killings of two teenage girls in Houston. The top lawyer for the state of Texas told the Supreme Court on Monday that Medellin had waited too long to invoke his claim under the treaty and is grasping at it in a last-ditch bid to postpone his execution.

"He committed this crime over 12 years ago, and the state of Texas believes it's time for justice to be carried out," Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz said after the hearing.

The International Court of Justice, known as the World Court, has ruled that Medellin and 50 other condemned Mexican nationals in nine U.S. states are entitled to new state hearings because they either weren't told of their right or weren't permitted to contact their country's consulate after their arrests.

In a controversial decision in February, President Bush asked Texas and the other states to comply with the World Court ruling. His action could put Medellin's case on a two-track legal path, one in the case before the Supreme Court, the other in a separate state-court review mandated by the World Court and Bush's subsequent request.

In questioning attorneys, Supreme Court justices suggested that the president's request complicates the case before them. Some questioned whether they need to rule on the merits of the arguments now that states may take a new look at the convictions.

The case before the Supreme Court came on Medellin's challenge to a federal appeals-court ruling that upheld his conviction.

Under the treaty that created the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in 1963, a detained foreign national in any of 166 participating countries is entitled to contact his or her consular officials "without delay" and must be told of that right.

The Bush administration has announced U.S. withdrawal from the optional protocol that established the World Court as the enforcement body for the treaty, but the administration backs the court's ruling on the Mexican defendants because it supports the principle of consular access.

Medellin, now 30, was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States since childhood. A member of a Houston gang known as "Blacks and Whites," he was one of five defendants sentenced to die for the rapes and murders of Jennifer Lee Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, after the pair stumbled into a gang initiation while hurrying home from a party.

Medellin, who was found guilty of capital murder in 1994, unsuccessfully appealed his conviction in state and federal courts. The state of Texas says Medellin invalidated his treaty claims because he didn't raise the issue as a potential element for appeal during his trial.