On the evening of Thursday, July 7th, Texas executed Humberto Leal Garcia, a Mexican national convicted of a 1994 rape and murder.
This case blew up in terms diplomatic when it was revealed after his conviction that he had not been informed of his right to communicate with the Mexican consulate. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the United States is a signatory, guarantees arrested foreigners the right to have their consulate notified of their arrest, and the right of the detainee to be notified of this right.
In 2003, Mexico sued the United States in the International Court of Justice on behalf of 51 condemned Mexicans in the United States, including Leal, all of whom had been denied consular access.
The following year, the ICJ ruled that to satisfy the terms of the Convention the US needed to grant the Mexican defendants a hearing to determine if their cases had been prejudiced by this lack of consular assistance. (The Mexican government has a robust program for providing legal assistance to its citizens detained abroad).
In 2008, the Supreme Court held in Medellin v. Texas that the Convention was not binding in and of itself, and that Congress had to enact the provisions by a separate statute. President Bush had tried to order the remedial hearings into existence, and the Court thusly shut him down. Having exhausted his state appeals, it was up to Congress to establish the remedial hearings required by the ICJ.
Leal’s case birthed a politically diverse coalition in agreement on one point: executing Leal before he had his hearing would seriously damage the credibility of the United States, and possibly endanger Americans detained abroad in the future. If the United States fails to honor its treaty commitments, other nations might reasonably decide that they have nothing to lose by disregarding theirs when the situation is reversed.
Prodded by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Medellin, Senator Leahy has been pushing legislation to make law the terms of the Vienna Convention. However, when it became apparent that such legislation would not pass before Leal’s execution, President Obama, joined by a chorus of heavyweights political, military, and diplomatic urged Governor Perry to stay Leal’s execution and give Congress time to remedy his case.
Long story short: Perry refused, and Leal was put to death by lethal injection on July 7th.
The exact ramifications of this are yet unknown, but we will not have to wait long to see what they are. The Vienna Convention has in the past been invoked by the United States to gain access to American prisoners in China, North Korea, Iran, and other countries where human rights and the rule of law are a “sometime snack.”
My hope is that Congress will fix the law to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Maybe other countries will let this treaty violation slide. Maybe not.
One useful lesson we can take from this depressing episode is that possible presidential candidate Rick Perry has disqualified himself from holding higher office. Certainly, he has done no harm to his standing either in Texas or on the right by hocking a loogie at Obama and “international law” (it sounds so gay in a Texas accent). But anyone who cares about the honor of the United States and the well-being of Americans traveling or working abroad in the military, Peace Corps, or diplomatic and intelligence services should know that Rick Perry does not share those concerns. To Governor Perry, the provincial and personal come first. Candidate Perry had his first test of national leadership, and he failed.