Bush orders review of Mexican nationals' capital convictions

This file photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows death row inmate Jose Medellin, a Mexican national, whose appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court.   Texas Dept. Of Criminal Justice / AP
/ Source: NBC News

His name is Jose Ernesto Medellin. He's a Mexican. In 1994 he was convicted of capital murder in Texas for raping and killing two teenage girls as part of a gang ritual and was sentenced to the death penalty.

Under international law, local authorities must notify the Mexican government when they are charging one of its citizens with a crime so that the suspect will have access to the legal resources provided by that government's consulate or embassy.

In Medellin's case Texas authorities did not do so. At the time he was represented by a court-appointed lawyer who failed to raise that issue at Medellin's trial.

The young Mexican sat on death row virtually ignored by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

So it caught many people by surprise this week when President Bush’s administration ordered state courts to "review and reconsider" claims by 51 Mexican citizens, including 15 in Texas, who are sitting on death row nationwide and say they were denied legal help from their consulates in violation of international law.

Medillan is one of them and his case will be heard by the United States Supreme Court. 

Texans not so happy with former Gov.
Many of Bush's fellow Republicans who hold high political offices in Texas were not expecting this.

In a written statement Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott disagreed with the Bush administration’s position that Mexican citizens deserve new hearings in state courts.

“We respectfully believe the executive determinations exceed the constitutional bounds for federal authority," Abbott said in a statement. Abbott hasn't decided whether to appeal the administration's order.

Another Republican, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, told the Houston Chronicle that, "Texas is simply trying to enforce its laws; Medellin has been given access to an attorney, a right to a fair trial, and all of the appeals and habeas corpus rights our system affords."

Despite domestic disagreements, the Mexican government is happy about the Bush administration's order to review death sentences of its citizens. The order is sure to please Mexican President Vicente Fox, who will be visiting Texas soon for a North American summit on trade and border security issues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Mexico on Thursday for meetings with top-level officials.

Sticking point for U.S.- Mexican relations
The legal rights of Mexicans in the United States — and particularly in the state of Texas — had become a major sticking point in U.S.–Mexican relations.

Fox actually cancelled a scheduled visit to Bush’s Texas ranch in August of 2002 after Javier Suarez Medina, a Mexican American, was executed in Texas despite outcry from top Mexican officials, including Fox. Mexican officials complained that Medina was not informed of his legal right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican government — a right guaranteed by the 1963 Vienna Convention of Consular Relations.

Fox’s snub of the president’s invitation was a sign of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Mexican governments and put a spotlight on international condemnation of the United States continued use of the death penalty.

Court of Justice
Once Medellin's case reaches the Supreme Court it will give the court an opportunity to respond to a decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled that the United States violated the Vienna Convention on consular relations in the case of Medellin and 48 other Mexican nationals on death row.

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to abolish capital punishment for juvenile offenders was also seen as a move by the United States to get in line with the international court of law that widely condemns the death penalty.

Political experts say the turnabout by Bush merely reflects the fact that he has broader responsibilities now that he is president than he had when he was Governor of Texas.

Paul Clement, the acting Solicitor General for the Bush administration, wrote in his court filing that the president has determined that reviewing the sentences of Mexicans on death row is "an appropriate means to fulfill this nation's treaty obligations."