U.S. v. Texas: The sequel

The federal government is still working to delay Jose Medellin’s execution. 

The Mexican-born resident of Texas’s death row is scheduled to be put to death Aug. 5. But the Bush administration has implored Texas Gov. Rick Perry to postpone the execution so that Medellin’s conviction for the brutal murder of a teenage girl can be reviewed by an international court.

Texas says: No dice.

And the state is supported by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last term that held that President Bush overstepped his executive authority in ordering Texas officials to comply with an order from the International Court of Justice dictating that Medellin’s conviction be reviewed, along with the convictions of 50 other Mexican nationals.

The court ruled the United States had failed to comply with the Vienna Convention, which mandates that Mexican citizens be given access to potential legal assistance from the Mexican government upon their arrest.

According to a story in Dallas Morning News Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has written Perry asking for Texas to help the United States comply with the treaty. And legislation in Congress has been introduced to force the U.S. to do so. 

But Perry doesn’t seem to be budging, given he has a Supreme Court ruling in his back pocket. From the Morning News:


But Gov. Perry remains resolute. Spokesman Robert Black admits the federal government has “a big sort of dilemma” because the United States as a whole is obligated to abide by international treaty obligations, but individual states are not.

Still, “the governor isn’t feeling any pressure on this simply because he is here to uphold the laws of the state of Texas and not some foreign court in Europe,” he said.

“Two young girls were brutally gang raped and murdered, and the governor is not willing to say that any foreign national is going to get any additional protection under the law than a Texas citizen would,” Mr. Black said.


Here’s my story about the case from last October, before the Supreme Court ruled for Texas in the long-simmering dispute:

By his own admission, the crime was savage. Jose Medellin and five other gang members were drinking, brawling, swaggering, talking smack and hanging out by the railroad tracks near a Houston apartment complex on a warm night in June 1993. Along came two girls, Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, taking a shortcut home from a friend’s house.

   Medellin stopped Pena. When she tried to run, he threw her to the ground. Ertman ran to help her but also was shoved to the ground. They were gang-raped and beaten. Even as the girls begged for their lives, they were dragged to nearby woods and strangled, one with her own shoelace, the other with a belt and then by a shoe pressed on her windpipe. Their bodies were found four days later.

   Medellin had no regrets. He bragged about the crime to his cousin and gave one of the girl’s rings to his girlfriend. His brother kept Ertman’s Disney-brand Goofy watch as a trophy.

    It didn’t take long for police to catch Medellin. Once they did, he confessed. Nor did it take long for the jury to return a verdict: Guilty. And Texas-style justice means death for a crime like his.


    For the past 13 years, Medellin has been on Death Row in Texas. Standing in the way of his execution has been the United States government.


    Texas has taken the U.S. to court to allow it to execute Medellin. This week the case will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.


    “It’s a crime even among capital crimes that stands out for its gruesomeness and its barbarity,” said R. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general.


    The case might be the ultimate test of states’ rights versus the power of the federal government. Indeed, 28 states have signed on in support of Texas. But it also indicates the extent to which states are bound by international law and the United States’ treaty obligations.


    The government of Mexico forced the U.S. stance. After Medellin was convicted, Mexico brought suit in the International Court of Justice, the judicial body of the United Nations, charging that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention. That treaty requires that foreign nationals arrested in a signatory country be allowed to meet with a consular official from their home country. It’s a tool treasured by diplomats worldwide. The U.S. once brought an action in the same court against Iran after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979.


    Although he had lived most of his life in Houston, Medellin was born in Mexico. Its government, like many in the world, is critical of capital punishment in the United States. Mexico claimed that Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals on Death Row in the U.S. had been denied their right to consult with its consulate, where they would have received legal assistance in an effort to avoid a death sentence.


    The international court found for Mexico in 2004 and ordered the U.S. to review the convictions and death sentences of the 51 Mexican nationals.


    “It’s the first time in the history of this nation that any foreign tribunal has asserted its authority to command the U.S. justice system,” Cruz said.


    The White House criticized the ruling, but in 2005 it startled Texas officials and others by saying it would comply. President Bush ordered the Texas courts to allow Medellin’s habeas corpus claim challenging his conviction to go forward, and Mexico praised the decision.


    New York lawyer Donald Francis Donovan, who will argue on behalf of Medellin at the Supreme Court, said the case is about showing the international community that the U.S. lives up to its treaty obligations. “What’s at stake is the U.S. commitment to the rule of law,” he said.


    Cruz calls the administration’s decision “breathtaking.”


    “With the stroke of a pen, by writing a two-paragraph memorandum to a Cabinet official, the president can set aside any state law he or she deems contrary to international comity,” Cruz said.


     Texas courts have found repeatedly that under state law, Medellin has no right to challenge his conviction and sentence, even if the Vienna treaty was violated. There is no dispute that Medellin wasn’t notified of his treaty rights when he was arrested, but the state has argued he failed to raise that objection at trial, forfeiting the claim.


    The litigation has bounced between Texas and the U.S. Supreme Court for years over procedural issues. On Wednesday, the appeal will finally be considered on the merits.


    Michael Matheson, a law professor at George Washington University, said the Vienna Convention and other treaties protect Americans abroad who are charged with crimes. He also cites the need to maintain a good relationship with Mexico.


    But Kent Scheidegger of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims-rights advocacy group, said the case is about a heavy-handed federal government interfering with state affairs. His group has filed a brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the parents of Jennifer Ertman. The brief said the girl would be 29 now and “her parents have waited longer for justice to be done in this case than Jennifer lived her entire, much too short, life.”


    One of Medellin’s fellow gang members was executed last year, with Jennifer Ertman’s father present as a witness.





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2 responses to “U.S. v. Texas: The sequel

  1. Pingback: Medellin asks Court to stay execution « Writ Large

  2. Pingback: Mexican Medellin set to die in hours « Writ Large

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