Release Date:  December 4, 2007
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in the international rights case of Medellin v. Texas set for Wednesday, October 10

For the second time in 2½ years, the United States Supreme Court will review claims challenging the trial and sentencing of a Mexican national found guilty of the brutal gang-rape and murder of two teenage girls in 1993.

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument on Wednesday in the case of Medellin v. Texas to consider if a treaty signed in 1963, an International Court ruling in 2004, and a Presidential memo issued in 2005, entitle defendant Jose Medellin to additional hearings on his claims against his conviction and death sentence.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which had submitted argument in Medellin’s first Supreme Court review in 2005 and last year’s reconsideration in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has again filed arguments on behalf of the family of one of Medellin’s victims to encourage a decision which puts an end to the delays in his execution.

“This brutal murderer has already received all the process he is due,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “Regardless of how the Court decides the international law question, it can and should end this case and allow justice to be carried out,” he added.

The case involves the 1993 conviction and death sentence of Jose Medellin for the rape and murder of two young girls in Houston, Texas. Medellin is a Mexican citizen who has lived in Texas most of his life. According to the Vienna Convention, a treaty signed in 1963, police were required to notify the Mexican government of his arrest.

Following his trial, Medellin’s conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. At that point, the Mexican consular authorities learned about the case and actively participated in the review on state habeas corpus, arguing that, had they been notified, they would have advised Medellin to refuse to talk to police without an attorney. The consulate did not suggest that they would have arranged for a more effective defense at Medellin’s trial or that he suffered any other harm as a result of the Mexican government not being notified of his arrest.

The state habeas judge reviewed Medellin’s claim and ruled that the “failure to notify” had no effect on the validity of Medellin’s conviction. The state appellate court later affirmed that ruling. On federal habeas corpus, Medellin made several claims of trial and sentencing error in addition to the Vienna Convention issue. After reviewing the Vienna Convention claim, the district judge found it meritless, as well as procedurally defaulted (improperly raised). Medellin appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

In 2004, in a case involving 51 Mexican nationals convicted of murder in the United States, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that when a foreign national’s government has not been notified, the defendant is entitled to a hearing to determine if the failure to notify had a prejudicial effect on his case. Medellin was one of the 51. Following that decision, President Bush issued a memorandum stating that the United States would carry out its obligations under the ICJ ruling “by having State courts give effect to the decision in accordance with general principles of comity in cases filed by the 51 Mexican nationals addressed in that decision.” The nature and legal effect of this memorandum remains a subject of dispute.

In a May 23, 2005, per curiam decision, the United States Supreme Court dismissed its review of Medellin’s petition for federal habeas corpus relief on his claim that his conviction violated the international treaty and 2004 ICJ ruling. The decision effectively returned the case to the Texas courts for any additional review of these claims, but preserved Medellin’s opportunity to appeal any ruling to the Supreme Court.

In his argument before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Medellin added a claim not raised in his first state habeas corpus petition, that in addition to his trial, his sentencing hearing was prejudiced by the state’s failure to notify the Mexican Consulate. In November of last year, the Texas court decided that Medellin was not entitled to further review of his international rights claim based on the ICJ ruling. Writing for the court, Judge Michael Keasler cited a June 2006 U. S. Supreme Court decision in two consolidated cases (Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon and Bustillo v. Johnson) to support its holding that, “In this case, we are bound by the Supreme Court’s determination that ICJ decisions are not binding on United States courts.” The Court added that the new claim attacking Medellin’s sentencing hearing violated state rules which bar review of claims which should have been presented at the initial habeas corpus hearing. Finally, with regard to the President’s memorandum, the Texas court assumed, for the purpose of this case, that it was an executive order which could not direct a court to act contrary to otherwise applicable law. “We hold that the President has exceeded his constitutional authority by intruding into the independent powers of the judiciary,” said the Court.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to review Medellin’s appeal of the Texas Court decision. In his appeal, Medellin claims that the ICJ ruling and the President’s memorandum require that he receive additional review of his claim. In addition to Medellin’s government-provided defense attorneys, amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs have been filed on his behalf by the U. S. Solicitor General, Governments of Mexico and Argentina, The European Union, the International Court of Justice Experts, and the American Bar Association.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has introduced an amicus curiae brief on behalf of itself and the parents of Jennifer Ertman, one of the victims in the case. The brief argues that two Texas courts and the Federal District Court have already reviewed Medellin’s claims as required by the treaty and the ICJ decision. Whatever weight the Supreme Court gives to the President’s memorandum or the Texas court’s ruling on it, this case need not to be reopened. Neither Medellin nor the Mexican Consulate claimed in the first state habeas proceeding that the failure to notify the consulate prejudiced Medellin in the penalty phase of his trial. Nothing in the ICJ decision precludes Texas from enforcing its rule that it is too late to bring that claim now. There is no justification for any further delay of the execution of this sentence.

The facts found by the jury in this case describe a particularly brutal crime. At about 11:00 p.m. on June 24, 1993, Medellin was hanging out in a remote Houston neighborhood with several fellow street gang members when they spotted two young girls. Fourteen-year-old Jennifer Ertman and her sixteen-year-old friend, Elizabeth Pena, were walking home from another friend’s house. As they passed the gang, Medellin grabbed Elizabeth and threw her to the ground as Jennifer ran. When Elizabeth called for help, Jennifer returned to help her and was thrown to the ground by other gang members. Over the next hour, both girls were subjected to what investigating officers called the most brutal gang rapes they had ever encountered. Following the rapes, the men dragged the bleeding girls to a wooded area as they begged for their lives. Two men initially tried to strangle Jennifer with a belt wrapped around her neck with one pulling at each end. When the belt broke, they strangled her to death with a shoelace. Medellin later complained, “the bitch wouldn’t die,” and it would have been “easier with a gun.” Elizabeth was also strangled to death with her shoelaces. The murderers then divided money and jewelry taken from the girls and several joined Medellin at the home of one of the men’s brother and sister-in-law. There, they bragged about the rapes and murders. Medellin explained to the sister-in-law that the girls had been killed to prevent them from identifying him and his accomplices. A few days later, the couple reported the crime to police.

Following his arrest and after waiving his Miranda rights, Medellin confessed his participation in the rapes and murders in a written statement.  He also disclosed that he had been born in Mexico. After learning this, but apparently unaware of a requirement of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Houston police failed to notify the Mexican Consulate that Medellin was under arrest for murder.