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Murder conviction appeal cites U.S. treaty obligation

Associated Press
Published March 29, 2005

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court was asked Monday to grant a Mexican's appeal of his murder conviction in Texas because he wasn't told of his right to contact his nation's consular officers after his arrest, contrary to an international treaty that America had signed.

The case is diplomatically sensitive and raises complex issues of federal, state and international law, the death penalty and America's obligations to the World Court under the 42-year-old treaty.

Jose Ernesto Medellin sits on death row in Texas, convicted of murder in the 1993 gang rape and killings of two teenage girls in Houston. The top lawyer for the state of Texas told the Supreme Court on Monday that Medellin had waited too long to invoke his claim under the treaty and is grasping at it in a last-ditch bid to postpone his execution.

"He committed this crime over 12 years ago, and the state of Texas believes it's time for justice to be carried out," Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz said after the hearing.

The International Court of Justice, known as the World Court, has ruled that Medellin and 50 other condemned Mexican nationals in nine U.S. states are entitled to new state hearings because they either weren't told of their right or weren't permitted to contact their country's consulate after their arrests.

In a controversial decision in February, President Bush asked Texas and the other states to comply with the World Court ruling. His action could put Medellin's case on a two-track legal path, one in the case before the Supreme Court, the other in a separate state court review mandated by the World Court and Bush's subsequent request.

In questioning attorneys, Supreme Court justices suggested that the president's request complicates the case before them. Some questioned whether they need to rule on the merits of the arguments now that states may take a new look at the convictions.

"The whole thing could go away," said Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice John Paul Stevens said the presidential request "could make the Texas proceeding moot."

The case before the Supreme Court came on Medellin's challenge to a federal appeals court ruling that upheld his conviction. His attorney, New York lawyer Donald Francis Donovan, challenged the ruling because Medellin wasn't told of his right to contact Mexican officials after his arrest.

Under the treaty that created the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in 1963, a detained foreign national in any of 166 participating countries is entitled to contact his or her consular officials "without delay," and must be told of that right.

The Bush administration has announced U.S. withdrawal from the optional protocol that established the World Court as the enforcement body for the treaty, but the administration backs the court's ruling on the Mexican defendants because it supports the principle of consular access.

Attorneys for Medellin maintain that he wasn't notified of his treaty rights until an attorney told him about them after he was convicted.

Court won't intervene in case against paper

Also Monday, the Supreme Court refused to step into a lawsuit against a newspaper, leaving the media in Pennsylvania vulnerable when they report defamatory comments by public figures.

The justices' decision not to consider the case was a victory for the former mayor and current council president of Parkesburg, Pa., who sued when the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., reported that a council member issued a statement strongly implying that he considered the two officials to be "queers and child molesters."

At issue is the neutral reporting privilege that allows the press to convey a reputable public figure's defamatory comment as long as it is reported neutrally and accurately. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that no such privilege exists, though the privilege is recognized by some state and federal courts.

The Pennsylvania high court in October ordered a trial to decide the liability of the newspaper's owner, publisher and the reporter who wrote the 1995 article.

[Last modified March 29, 2005, 01:32:11]

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