Execution of Mexican in Texas Sparks Dispute over Rights of Foreigners on Death Row

Texas is no stranger to controversial executions but the case of the latest prisoner to die in the state has ignited a dispute over the rights of foreigners held on death row.

Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican national, was convicted of killing a police officer in Houston in 1994. He had sought a reprieve from the death penalty for 19 years, arguing that Texas police failed to follow the Vienna Convention that requires them to provide foreigners rapid access to consular officials from their home countries when arrested.

Neither the diplomatic arguments nor the stance of the federal government made much difference in the end. Tamayo was executed earlier this month in Texas.

The Christian Science Monitor reported both Mexico and the Obama administration, which is concerned that American citizens also could be denied consular access, supported Tamayo’s stance.

“Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation,” Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to have written in a letter to Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry urging that the execution be delayed.

Perry was unimpressed with the argument. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from – if you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you are subject to our state laws, including a fair trial by jury and the ultimate penalty,” his spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, said in an email.

Tamayo’s execution should be seen in the context of a drawn out dispute over whether Texas and other states are obliged to recognize international treaties that give legal rights to foreigners held for crimes in the United States. Back in 2004, The International Court of Justice in the Hague said the U.S should review the cases of 51 Mexicans because they had not been given timely access to consular officials.

“In Tamayo’s case, he wasn’t allowed to see a representative of his country until a week before his trial,” reported the Christian Science Monitor.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the White House lacks the authority to order states to comply with the international court ruling and overrule the states. It said an act of Congress would be needed to make the ruling binding on individual states.

Legislation is now pending in Congress that would require the states to respect the Vienna Convention clause on foreign criminal suspects, according to Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit opposed to the death penalty.

Although executions are declining across the United States, Texas still executes the most defendants in the country. It carried out 16 executions in 2013.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.