ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To Texas now where a planned execution pits the state against the federal government and the International Court of Justice. The dispute involves a Mexican national convicted of murder and sentenced to death. When he was arrested, Humberto Leal Jr. was not informed of his right to notify his embassy or consulate. Mexico cried foul, the International Court of Justice agreed, and the U.S. government asked Texas to review the case.
But as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the state has refused and plans to execute Leal in three weeks.
WADE GOODWYN: On the night of May 21, 1994, 16-year-old Adria Sauceda attended a party on the south side of San Antonio. Witnesses at the party testified that the teenager ingested so much alcohol, cocaine and marijuana she became extremely intoxicated. A group of eight or nine young men took her into the backyard and began to sexually assault her taking turns. Anyone who tried to intervene was told to back off.
Ms. SANDRA BABCOCK (Defense Attorney): My client, Humberto Leal, came to the party, learned what had happened to her, became very upset and said that he was going to take her home.
GOODWYN: Sandra Babcock is Leal's lawyer and a professor at Northwestern University Law School. Leal says that on the ride home, Sauceda tried to get out of the car. Leal pulled over, she got out, he tried to get her back in, they argued, he pushed her, and she hit her head. But Leal maintains he didn't kidnap her, and he didn't rape her. And that's the crux of his defense because without those additional crimes, Leal would not have faced a capital murder charge and a death penalty conviction.
Ms. BABCOCK: And so although there was evidence that he was with her before she died, and that he may have had some involvement in her death, the evidence that shows that he committed a sexual assault is reed thin. And the evidence that shows that he kidnapped her is even weaker.
GOODWYN: Babcock accuses the public defenders assigned to defend Leal of putting on a lazy defense, and that particularly galls the government of Mexico. All parties agree that Humberto Leal, a Mexican national in Texas legally, should have been told he had a right to notify his consulate in San Antonio. The Mexican government says, had it known, it would have paid for Leal to have top flight legal representation, investigators and experts to assist in his defense.
Victor Uribe is the head of the legal section at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Mr. VICTOR URIBE (Director, Foreign Litigation, Mexican Foreign Ministry): Mexico has a long-standing tradition, internationally recognized tradition about assisting their nationals. And of course, due to the opposition of Mexico to the death penalty, capital cases, cases where the death penalty could be imposed, are a priority for Mexico.
GOODWYN: Including Leal, there are 51 Mexican nationals on death row in the U.S. who were never informed of their rights. In frustration, Mexico took these cases to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The court ruled that the U.S. had violated its treaty obligations and ordered the U.S. to review these men's cases to see if that violation had prejudiced the men's defenses.
John Bellinger, a partner at Arnold and Porter in Washington, is the former legal adviser at the State Department who handled these cases for the Bush administration.
Mr. JOHN BELLINGER (Attorney, Arnold and Porter): It's not a favor that we do for foreigners who travel in the United States. The United States is a party to this treaty because it protects Americans when we travel abroad.
GOODWYN: To the surprise of conservatives and liberals both, President Bush was persuaded by the State Department argument, and he ordered the individual states to review their foreign national cases. But Texas Governor Rick Perry said no, and to the Bush administration's chagrin, the Republican governor of Texas challenged his predecessor in federal court and won.
Mr. BELLINGER: Texas has been particularly resistant to complying. I think Texas and the governor have tended to think that this is a question of bowing to pressure from Washington or protecting the sovereignty of Texas from international tribunals in The Hague.
GOODWYN: Although Governor Perry, the state attorney general's office and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles all declined to speak to NPR, Perry's staff in the past has said, quote, "The world court has no standing in Texas, and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court. It is very important to remember that these individuals are on death row for killing our citizens."
Texas has already executed two Mexican nationals who weren't informed of their rights. Now, Humberto Leal is on deck to be put to death the first week of July, and the Mexican government is worried. Having witnessed the powerlessness of the International Court and the president of the United States to stop these executions, Victor Uribe of the Mexican Embassy says they've appealed to the real power in all this, Governor Rick Perry.
Mr. URIBE: We are, well, respectfully requesting him to exercise his legal power to suspend Mr. Leal's execution until his conviction and sentence are reviewed and reconsidered according to the event of the decision of the ICJ.
GOODWYN: Humberto Leal's time is quickly running out. His best hope probably lay in federal court. His lawyer has filed a federal habeas corpus petition, asking the court to stay Leal's execution long enough to allow Congress time to consider legislation that would order the states, including Texas, to comply. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the legislation yesterday.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.