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Leal v. Texas, 2011

Execution Has International Implications


In the case of Leal v. Texas, the United States Supreme Court refused to authorize a stay of execution for convicted murderer Humberto Leal. The State of Texas executed Leal by lethal injection just an hour after the Supreme Court made its decision on July 7, 2011.

The Case

Leal (also known as Humberto Leal Garcia), was a 38-year-old Mexican national who had lived in the United States since before he was two. He was convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of a 16-year-old Texas girl. The State of Texas put him on death row.

Foreign Policy Connection

Leal's attorneys argued for a stay of execution on the grounds that his conviction violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (also simply known as the Vienna Convention), which says foreign nationals accused of crimes have the right to consular assistance. They argued that Texas authorities never gave him a chance to consult the Mexican consul.

Leal's petition cited the 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision in Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals. That decision rebuked the US for the consular rights infringement.

Both Leal's attorneys and the Obama Administration had petitioned the Supreme Court to grant the stay to give the United States Congress time to enact legislation to protect consular rights. The Senate took up consideration of such a bill in June 2011; the House of Representatives had not at the time of the Supreme Court hearing.

Case Outcome

The Supreme Court denied the stay in a 5-4 decision. In its majority opinion, the Court wrote, "we are doubtful that is is ever appropriate to stay a lower court judgement in light of unenacted legislation. Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be."

Noting that the ICJ decision had come seven years earlier, the majority also said, "If a statute implementing Avena had genuinely been a priority for the political branches, it would have been enacted by now."

Foreign Policy Implications

Writing in the Court's dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said executing Leal would put the United States in "irreparable breach" of its obligations under international law. He noted that the US had agreed to abide by the Vienna Convention and ICJ decisions. He said the US and the State of Texas were in violation of those agreements the moment Leal was arrested and not notified of his consular rights.

Breyer said, "international legal obligations" and "related foreign policy considerations" both indicated granting the stay.

US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who introduced the Senate consular rights bill, said the execution puts the United States in a dangerous double standard. "Americans detained overseas rely on their access to U.S. consulates every day," he said in a Time.com report. "If we expect other countries to abide by the treaties they join, the United States must also honor its obligations."

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