In a controversial move, President Barack Obama intervened in a capital punishment case in Texas, attempting to block the execution of a Mexican man convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio in 1994. Lawyers for the man to be executed, Humberto Leal, claim that had he been given the consular assistance required by the Vienna Convention, he probably would have been convicted of manslaughter.
According to Obama, executing Leal would breach international law and cause “irreparable harm” to U.S. interests abroad. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, could grant Leal clemency. But, despite the fact that Congress is about to pass a law that would allow federal courts to review cases like these to determine whether lack of consular help made a significant impact in the case, Perry won’t budge. Leal is set to be executed on July 7.
The issue is not whether Leal raped and killed the woman, which even his lawyers admit is “plausible.” But he was denied the proper legal assistance throughout the case. Under this argument, Leal was denied a fair trial. According to the Guardian,
“Mexican authorities were never informed of his arrest, and at his trial he was assigned court-appointed lawyers whom his current attorneys say were unprepared and incompetent. One of the trial lawyers has twice been suspended from practising law and reprimanded two other times for failing to carry out his obligations to his clients, according to the attorneys.”
It also seems that Texas authorities neglected to tell Leal that he had any rights to consular assistance under the Vienna Convention, so he didn’t know that he could ask for further assistance.
The United Nations, Amnesty International, and a number of diplomats and military officials have signed letters to Perry, saying that a refusal to grant clemency to Leal could endanger the lives and interests of Americans abroad, especially military personnel. A UN official said that executing Leal would amount to “an arbitrary deprivation of life.”
Although Rick Perry’s consistent backing of the death penalty may make him a more popular political figure, given that a majority of Americans support capital punishment, this is a clear case where clemency should be applied. Even former president George W. Bush said that he would adhere to a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice, which said that the U.S. had failed to legally support 51 Mexicans who were awaiting execution. They also had not been told that they could ask their consulates for assistance. The problem is, though, that until this law passes Congress, individual states are not required to adhere to the ICJ’s ruling.
You know it’s bad when a governor is still refusing to commute a death sentence, despite pleas from diplomats, military figures, and legal and political authorities. It’s unclear why Perry is still determined to execute Leal for what his office described as “the most heinous of crimes,” but if the execution does go through, Perry could create an international incident. If he’s still considering a run for the presidency – or even just his obligations as governor of a U.S. state – Perry should think again.
Photo from Gage Skidmore’s Flickr photostream.