Supreme Court Addresses Death Penalty Cases

The Supreme Court announces two decisions involving capital cases. The court decided not to rule on whether a Mexican immigrant was denied his rights when his consulate was not informed of his arrest, leaving it for Texas courts. Also, the justices rule that it is unconstitutional, in most cases, to force murder defendants to appear before juries in shackles.

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The Supreme Court has sidestepped, at least for now, a death penalty case involving a Mexican citizen. The case tests how far US courts have to go to provide foreigners access to their consulates after they're arrested. NPR's Nina Totenberg has details.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

The case before the court involves a treaty provision that was actually proposed by the United States in order to protect US citizens when they're traveling abroad. It requires that whenever a foreigner in any country is arrested, his consulate be notified and have access to the prisoner. In the United States, however, that provision has been routinely ignored. And last year, the International Court of Justice ruled that because the US had failed to provide consular access to 51 Mexican nationals on death row, each of those cases had to be re-examined by the US courts.

Among the 51 is Jose Medellin, convicted of a brutal gang rape and murder in Texas and sentenced to die. At the time of his arrest, he was 18, indigent and was assigned a defense lawyer by the state, a lawyer who, it turns out, had been suspended by the bar for ethics violations. Four years later, when Mexican authorities learned Medellin had been convicted and sentenced to death, they began providing legal assistance, but it was too late. The state and federal courts ruled that since he had not objected to the denial of consular access at trial, Medellin was barred from raising that objection later.

The World Court, however, ruled that the treaty the US signed trumps state law. And just weeks before the case was to be argued in the Supreme Court, the Bush administration agreed that states are bound by the treaty and must review all convictions in light of the treaty. Medellin's lawyers pressed the Supreme Court for more specific guidance, but today, the justices dismissed the case, sending it back to the Texas courts for review, and noting that the Supreme Court can revisit the case later if necessary. Lawyers on both sides professed satisfaction with the outcome. Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

Mr. TED CRUZ (Texas Solicitor General): We are very pleased that the Supreme Court dismissed Medellin's appeal. There will continue to be litigation in the state courts, and that litigation will ultimately resolve the effect, if any, of the executive determination.

TOTENBERG: And Donald Donovan, representing Medellin, also said he was pleased.

Mr. DONALD DONOVAN (Lawyer for Jose Medellin): We said we wanted to go back to Texas, and the courts made it clear that the case is as important now as when they granted, perhaps even more important now that the president has weighed in and confirmed that the United States should comply with its international obligations. So actually, we'd count it a win.

TOTENBERG: But the court's unsigned opinion left something to be desired by everyone. On the one hand, the Texas courts are free now to give the narrowest of readings to the Bush administration's instructions that the treaty be complied with. And on the other hand, Texas still maintains that a treaty cannot trump state law even if the president says so. Again, Solicitor General Cruz.

Mr. CRUZ: That exceeds the constitutional authority of the federal government.

Mr. HAROLD KOH (Dean, Yale Law School): I think this is a matter of Supreme Court case law that's clearly wrong.

TOTENBERG: Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh represented a group of former diplomats from Republican and Democratic administrations who filed a brief in the case. They argued that when the US signs a treaty, that treaty becomes as much a part of US law as a statute.

Mr. KOH: The president ought to have the power to direct the state courts to do what's ever necessary to follow an international treaty obligation. That's exactly the reason why we have a Constitution is so that the states don't conduct their own foreign policy.

TOTENBERG: In a second death penalty case today, the court ruled by a 7-to-2 vote that the Constitution forbids the routine use of shackles for a defendant at a sentencing hearing in a death penalty case. The ruling came in the case of Carman Deck convicted of robbing and killing an elderly couple in their home in Missouri. At a sentencing hearing before a jury, Deck was shackled with leg irons, handcuffs and a belly chain.

But writing for the seven-justice majority today, Justice Stephen Breyer said the shackling prejudiced Deck by conveying to the jury the idea that the defendant was too dangerous to be unrestrained in the courtroom. `Of course,' said Breyer, `there will be occasions when shackling is necessary to protect people in the courtroom, but in this case, there was no evidence of a security risk or risk of escape.'

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for himself and Justice Scalia in dissent, said the majority's opinion, quote, "defies common sense and all but ignores the serious security issues facing our courts." Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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