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2008: Jose Medellin, precedent

August 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.

U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.

A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.

Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.

“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”

If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.

Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”

“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.

U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.

Texas scoffed.

“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.

This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.

The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.

Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.

* Mexico, which no longer has the death penalty itself, has the heavy preponderance of foreign nationals on United States death rows at any given time.

** The Texas Attorney General’s press release announcing Medellin’s execution included a detailed appellate history of the case which pointedly excluded anything that happened in the ICJ.

† The Bush administration did take one effective step to avoid a similarly embarrassing situation in the future: it withdrew the U.S. from the consular notification convention.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Mexico,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA

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4 thoughts on “2008: Jose Medellin, precedent”

  1. John Henry says:

    While this article seems to take Texas to task for the faulty claim that it did not abide by a treaty agreement that, it fails to account for the horrendous crime and the list of considerations by jury and appellate courts. The full account of this rape and murder story is told here:
    http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/medellin1116.htm
    Considering the brutality of the rapes, murders, and subsequent actions by the criminals involved, no jury could in good conscience have decided the case differently.
    In the future, please report the facts of the cases and refrain from muddleheaded criticism of law and justice.

    1. Meaghan says:

      I’m sure once you own this blog yourself you can write about whatever you like.

    2. Headsman says:

      The clarkprosecutor address is a link in the post already, bub.

    3. JCF says:

      “it fails to account for the horrendous crime”

      That the crime is “horrendous” is a GIVEN. It doesn’t affect the Constitution, or treaty obligations.

      * NB: a crime being horrendous, moreover, NEVER equates to the accused being actually guilty of said crime. And in a State like Texas a conviction equating to actual guilt (esp w/ a minority accused!) may be purely coincidental…

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