Lives On The Line

In 1988 Javier Suarez Medina, then 19, was convicted for the murder of Larry Cadena, an undercover cop posing as a drug dealer, in a Texas drug bust. At his trial, police witnesses testified that Medina had opened Cadena's car door and shot the officer. Medina, who was in the United States legally, admitted that he killed Cadena. That was enough to get him convicted. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection in Texas this week.

Medina's home country, Mexico, is scrambling to save his life. Mexican officials argue that Medina's consular rights were violated at the time of his arrest. Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, foreigners arrested in the United States have the right to see their consular offices without delay. In Medina's case, that did not happen. In fact, the Mexican Consulate claims that after making inquiries, it was told at various times by Texas officials that Medina was not Mexican, but rather Cuban or Colombian. Mexico, which hasn't applied the death penalty in more than 70 years, does not like the fact that it has more foreign nationals on death row in the United States (54) than in any other country. President Vicente Fox is likely to raise the issue with George W. Bush during his visit to the president's ranch later this month. What Mexico wants is simple: full judicial review of any case involving a violation of Article 36 of the Vienna Convention.

Until recently, the Vienna Convention was invoked only as a diplomatic recourse and had no bearing on individual criminal trials. But a series of high-profile cases, some involving Mexicans, has refocused international attention on U.S. capital-punishment policy. Mexico has taken a leading role in opposing it. "The federal government needs to tell [the U.S. states] that [they] are bound by international law," says Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, legal adviser to head of the Mexican State Department, Jorge Castaneda.

In recent years Mexico has organized a number of groups that aim to keep its nationals from getting death sentences or, if they do, to have the sentences commuted. It's also trying to win support from the European Union and other Latin American countries, which tend to be opposed to America's eye-for-an-eye justice system. In 1999 Germany took the United States before the International Court of Justice after Arizona executed two German brothers. Germany says they were apprised of their rights too late, and the court ruled that the United States had violated the convention. "Our perception is that U.S. attorneys are not familiar with international law," says Victor Uribe, an attorney for the Mexican government.

The U.S. State Department says it is trying to boost awareness of international law in state and local governments, but admits the process has been slow. Defense attorneys say that in Texas, which executes more people than any other U.S. state, the pace of justice has gotten ahead of itself. "It's a little too fast," asserts Sandra Babcock, who heads a group called Mexican Legal Assistance for the Death Penalty, which works on behalf of the Mexican government in the United States. Last week the State Department sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking that it consider consular issues in Medina's case. That may not be quite enough to please Mexico, but it's a start.

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