The Execution Heard around the World: Humberto Leal Garcia v. Texas

Just two weeks after the Court split on the issue of whether a ban on video games sold to children is unconstitutional, the United States Supreme Court found itself fractured again. And, again, the Court seems to have divided itself along ideological lines.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices on the Supreme Court sealed the fate of a man in Texas. Humberto Leal Garcia, who was found guilty of murdering a young woman 16 years ago, was executed in Huntsville, Texas within one hour of the decision. It was reported that in his last moments, Leal repeated that he was sorry and shouted, “Viva Mexico!”

Leal is a Mexican national. He was arrested, tried and sentenced in the United States. In a last ditch effort, his lawyers, backed by the Bush and then Obama administration, filed an application to seek a stay of execution on the grounds that Leal’s conviction was obtained in violation of his rights. The question at hand is whether the United States violated Garcia’s rights when he was denied contact with his consular office upon detention. This is a right guaranteed by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Vienna Convention); the United States has signed and ratified the Convention. Further, the International Court of Justice at The Hague (ICJ) ruled that the rights of Mr. Leal and about 50 other Mexican citizens on death row in the United States had indeed been violated in 2004.

Pithily, the majority of the US Supreme Court proclaimed: “Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be.”

The Court’s decision was met with criticism and condemnation in America and around the world. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was “disappointed.” The case, according to the UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, “places the U.S. in breach of international law.” She adds, the execution “will undermine the role of the International Court of Justice, and its ramifications are likely to spread far beyond Texas.”

The Crime & the Conviction

The crime committed by the defendant, Humberto Leal Garcia, is as heinous as it gets. In 1994, he was found guilty of kidnapping a young woman, Adria Sauceda, whom he proceeded to rape with a large stick and bludgeon to death with a piece of asphalt. While he was in police custody in Texas, the police had never informed Leal, who was born in Mexico, that he was entitled to contact the Mexican consulate under the Vienna Convention. Though Leal was a Mexican national, he had resided in the United States since the age of 2.

Later, Leal was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas court.

International Law

Leal’s case, as heard by the United States Supreme Court last week, rests on international law. Being a Mexican national living in the United States when he was detained and arrested, Article 36, paragraph 1(b) of the Vienna Convention would apply to his case:

1. With a view to facilitating the exercise of consular functions relating to nationals of the sending State:

(b) if he so requests, the competent authorities of the receiving State shall, without delay, inform the consular post of the sending State if, within its consular district, a national of that State is arrested or committed to prison or to custody pending trial or is detained in any other manner. Any communication addressed to the consular post by the person arrested, in prison, custody or detention shall be forwarded by the said authorities without delay.

The International Court of Justice at The Hague reiterates this right in its 2004 decision, Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals. It was held that the US had violated the rights of the detainees, including Leal, when the authorities failed to notify them of their right to consular assistance.

Leal’s position is foreclosed by the 2008 United States Supreme Court decision of Medellin v. Texas.

The Medellin decision clarified that “neither the Avena decision nor the President’s Memorandum purporting to implement that decision constituted directly enforceable federal law.” While an international treaty may constitute an international commitment, it is not binding domestic law unless Congress has enacted statutes or unless the treaty itself is “self-executing.” Medellin also holds that, absent an act of Congress or Constitutional authority, the President lacks the authority to enforce international treaties or decisions of the ICJ.

A Yet-to-Enacted Legislation

Guided by the Medellin decision, the US government asks the Court to stay the execution of Leal until January 2012. This would be in support of the Court’s “future jurisdiction to review the judgment in a proceeding” under a yet-to-be-enacted legislation that essentially transforms Article 36 of the Vienna Convention into domestic law. The US government points to Senator Patrick Leahy, who introduced implementing legislation in the Senate with support from the President on June 14, 2011. No implementing legislation has been introduced in the House.

Legislation: Too Little, Too Late?

The majority of the Supreme Court relies heavily on the Medellin decision. It seems as though they are committed to reading it narrowly. The unsigned majority decision makes a comparison between Leal’s case and Medellin’s case, where the latter sought a stay of execution on the grounds that Congress might enact implementing legislation. The Court denied the stay application then. They based their decision on the fact that “Congress has not progressed beyond the bare introduction of a bill in the four years since the ICJ ruling.”

Turning to the case at hand, the majority therefore concludes that, “It has now been seven years since the ICJ ruling and three years since our decision in Medellin, making a stay based on the bare introduction of a bill in a single house of Congress even less justified.”  They go even farther by making the inference that, “If a statute implementing Avena had genuinely been a priority for the political branches, it would have been enacted by now.”

The Problem of Prejudice

For the remainder of the decision, those five justices on the Court turn to the problem of Leal’s conviction. They remind us of the starting point of Medellin: “[t]he beginning premise for any stay… must be the petitioner’s confession was obtained unlawfully,” and that “[t]he United States has not wavered in its position that petitioner was not prejudiced by his lack of consular access.” In the eyes of the majority, the US government did not make the argument that Leal was prejudiced by the denial of his rights under the Vienna Convention. Thus, the beginning premise of the application to stay the execution is not satisfied.

The majority of the bench does not take into account the fact that Leal’s lawyers, who collaborated with the Obama administration in their appeal, did speak to his disadvantageous position. Before the pardons board, they argued that, “There can be little doubt that if the government of Mexico had been allowed access to Mr Leal in a timely manner, he would not now be facing execution for a capital murder he did not commit.”

An “Irreparable Breach” of International Law

The Solicitor General makes the claim that Leal’s execution “would place the United States in irreparable breach” of its “obligation[s]” under international law. Moreover, the Solicitor General, whose powers come from the Executive Office, foresees “serious repercussions for United States foreign relations, law-enforcement and other cooperation with Mexico, and the ability of American citizens traveling abroad to have the benefits of consular assistance in the event of detention.”

The Solicitor General’s foresight is supported by the Government of Mexico’s strongly worded response to Leal’s impending execution. The execution “would seriously jeopardize the ability of the Government of Mexico to continue working collaboratively with the United States on a number of joint ventures, including extraditions, mutual judicial assistance, and our efforts to strengthen our common border.”

Continuing to discuss foreign policy in his dissent, Justice Breyer reminds his colleagues on the Court that they have “long recognized the President’s special constitutionally based authority in matters of foreign relations.” He cites the 1936 case of United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export. Citing the more recent case of Jama v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2005), Breyer concludes that the Court has “given [the President’s] views significant weight” in the past, and should continue to do so with Leal.

Breyer’s Balance:

Ultimately, Justice Breyer asks the Court to balance two competing interests. On one hand, we have “international legal obligations, related foreign policy considerations, the prospect of legislation, and the consequent injustice involved should that legislation, coming too late for Leal, help others in identical circumstances all favor granting a stay.” “On the other hand, the State has an interest in proceeding with an immediate execution,” summarizes Breyer.

The delay, as Breyer calculates, would be until September, and would greatly ease diplomatic relations between the US and other countries, including Mexico, and would correct the injustice that Leal and others have suffered and many others are suffering. This two-month delay would be imposed at the cost of briefly postponing an execution of a man who was found guilty of a capital offense sixteen years ago. For Justices Breyer, along with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsberg, the scales are tipped in favour of Leal and the US government.


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