Release Date:  March 25, 2008
Contact:  Michael Rushford
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Ruling in Medellin v. Texas Settles International Law Issue

Texas murderer Jose Ernesto Medellin, who has benefited from a legal drama over the rights of foreign nationals sentenced to death for murder in the United States, has lost his bid for additional delay of his execution.  A United States Supreme Court decision announced today in Medellin v. Texas ends a legal dispute involving the World Court, Supreme Court, the state of Texas, and the President. This dispute has extended the litigation over Medellin’s sentence for several years after it normally would have ended.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based group which filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the family of one of the two teenaged girls raped and murdered by Medellin, had argued in support of today’s decision.

“The controversy over a treaty signed 45 years ago has delayed justice in this case which involves a brutal, remorseless murderer,” said Kent Scheidegger, the Foundation’s Legal Director.  “As soon as the lethal injection controversy is resolved, which we expect to happen this year, justice can finally be carried out in this case,” he added.

The Court’s decision held that the relevant treaties are not “self-executing,” meaning that they do not override state law unless and until Congress implements them with legislation.  In this case, Texas law provides that any claim not made on the first habeas corpus petition is defaulted, with exceptions not relevant here.  The President cannot implement the treaty with a simple memorandum.  Only an act of Congress can override the state law governing this case.

The Court agreed to review the case 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 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, a case involving 51 Mexican nationals convicted of murder in the United States was decided by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  Although formally the case is Mexico v. United States, the decision is commonly called the Avena case.  The 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 was one of the issues before the Supreme Court.

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 the 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 2006, in the case of Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, the Supreme Court disagreed with the ICJ’s decision and held that states need not grant a new hearing if the defendant had not raised his claim at the appropriate time in the state courts’ review of the case.  However, the defendant in that case was not one of the 51 directly involved in the ICJ case.

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 2006, the Texas court decided that Medellin was not entitled to further review of his international rights claim based on the ICJ ruling, holding that “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 but held that such an order could not direct a court to act contrary to otherwise applicable law. Today’s Supreme Court decision is consistent with the Texas court’s ruling.

In his Supreme Court appeal, Medellin argued that the ICJ ruling and the President’s memorandum require that he receive additional review of his claim.  Others filing argument in support of Medellin’s position included the U. S. Solicitor General, the Governments of Mexico and Argentina, The European Union, the International Court of Justice Experts, and the American Bar Association.

In its amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation argued that two Texas courts and the Federal District Court have already reviewed Medellin’s claims as required by the treaty and the ICJ Avena decision.  The Foundation concluded that there is no justification for any further delay of Medellin’s 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.

“This brutal murderer had already received all the process he is due,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “It is high time that justice was carried out in this case.”