On March 31, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in The Hague, ruled in favor of suit brought by the Mexican government against the United States regarding Mexican nationals currently sitting on death row. If, like most Americans, you consider court rulings from The Hague about as relevant as the Eurovision song contest, consider the cases of two men, the first an American citizen, the second a Mexican.
In 1992, a Mexican judge sentence Chicago-born Alfonso Martin del Campo Dodd to 50 years in prison for the murder of his sister and her husband, despite the fact that the sole evidence linking him to the crime was his confession which a Mexican policeman admitted torturing him into signing. Dodd appealed his conviction, but four subsequent judges ruled that confessions extracted under torture are admissible as evidence. Perhaps an innocent man, the 39 year-old will spend the rest of his life in a Mexican jail.
In 2000, a Texas jury sentence Angel Maturino Resendiz to death for the 1998 rape and murder of a Houston physician. Resendiz, better known as the infamous "Railway Killer." rode the railways of America where he murdered at least nine people - often sexually abusing their dead or dying bodies - before turning himself into authorities in 1999. Many law enforcement officials believe that Resendiz may have killed nearly 200 others - making him the worst serial killer in North American history. He currently sits in a Texas penitentiary awaiting execution.
Given that Mexico is a country whose judicial system allows the torture of suspects and routinely considers a person accused of a crime guilty until proven otherwise, it is ironic - some would say outrageous - that the Vicente Fox government recently sought the annulment of Resendiz's conviction, along with that of 50 other Mexican nationals slated for execution in Texas and eight other U.S. states. More outrageous yet, Mexico nearly got the ICJ to agree with them.
In January, 2003, our southern neighbor instituted legal proceedings in the ICJ charging that the United States had violated the provisions of the 1963 Vienna Accord on Consular Relations, which, in part, requires arresting officials to notify foreign citizens that they have a right to contact their consulate. Specifically, the Fox government contended that had they known of the arrest of the 52 Mexican nationals (later reduced to 51), government officials might have gone to the defendants' trials and - so the implication went - perhaps prevented their conviction or at least their death sentences. Furthermore, Mexico argued, because the United States had failed in a timely fashion to issue the appropriate information, any statements the Mexicans made should not be admissible as evidence and their convictions voided.
On March 31, the ICJ ruled that the United States had indeed violated the Vienna Accord, but stopped short of overturning the Mexicans' convictions, ordering instead that American courts "review and reconsider" their cases. The Court also reiterated an earlier ruling that, pending this "review," Texas must delay the execution of two men, Cesar Fierro and Roberto Ramos, and Oklahoma halt the execution of one inmate, Osvaldo Torres Aguilera. More importantly, because the ICJ did not limit its ruling to the Mexican cases, or even to capital crimes, it essentially left a way for thousands of foreign inmates held in American prisons to reopen their convictions.
This is the third time in six years that the ICJ, which has no power to enforce its rulings, has reprimanded the United States for failing to observe the Vienna Accord, which Congress ratified in 1969. In 1998, Paraguay asked the court to stay the execution of one of its citizens, and the following year, Germany petitioned The Hague to prevent two brothers from receiving capital punishment. Both attempts failed.
Unless a Unites States federal court steps in, this latest ruling may experience a similar fate. "The ICJ has no standing with us," says Robert Black, a spokesman for Texas Governor Rick Perry. According to Black, because the Fierro and Ramos cases are still under appeal, there is no scheduled execution date. Not so with Torres Aguilera, notes Charlie Price, spokesman for Oklahoma Attorney General W.A. Drew Edmondson. He comments that, "Despite the ruling from the ICJ, Aguilera's execution by lethal injection will take place on May 18." This has particularly upset Mexican officials who take great pride in the fact that their country has not executed a civilian criminal since 1937.
Critics of the ICJ's ruling claim it is an unwarranted intrusion into the judicial sovereignty of the United States, and warn that the international body is gradually becoming a "court of appeals" that seeks to supercede the United States Supreme Court. Going further, law professors Eric Posner and John Woo wrote an April 7 op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal accusing the court of becoming a "forum for attacking the U.S. and its allies." Over the last 20 years, they note, the ICJ has heard challenges to American policy from Nicaragua, Libya, Serbia and Iran. The court, they contend, "has rendered itself irrelevant to international relations."
Those opposed to the United States' position argue, in part, that because the Mexicans lacked sufficient knowledge of English and/or the American court system, their trials were inherently unfair - an argument that American officials vehemently contest. "They received all the protections of the U.S. Constitution," argues Jerry Strickland, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot. Moreover, a check of the backgrounds of many of the death row felons shows they were anything but confused aliens who drifted into the country, only to become ensnared by the law.
For example, Resendiz, who spoke fluent English, had crossed in and out of the United States a dozen times beginning in 1979, while his criminal record even before his string of murders included brushes with the law in eight states. Jose Medellin, who in 1993 kidnapped, raped and strangled a 16-year-old girl, had lived in the United States since he was six "and spoke good English," says Harris County, Texas, Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson. She adds that the same holds true for Edgar Tamayo, who in 1994 shot a Houston policeman in the back of the head. As for Torres Aguilera in 1993, the then-18-year-old used a Tec-9 (a 9mm semi-automatic pistol) to shoot an Oklahoma City couple in their bed with their children watching - it has been noted by spokesman Charlie Price that Aguilera arrived in the United States in 1975, when he was five years old.
Still, as heinous as the crimes may be, the Constitution states that treaties "made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby." Moreover, some legal experts maintain that should the United States refuse to reconsider these death penalty cases, it will violate at least three international treaties, including the United Nations Charter. At a time when America is desperately looking for allies in the world, they question if can it afford not to accede to the ICJ's demands. Minneapolis attorney Sandra Babcock, who pioneered the use of the Vienna Accords to defend her clients, even suggests that police should read foreign detainees the treaty along with their Miranda Rights.
Meanwhile, in another ironic twist to the controversy, citizens in the central state of Mexico, considered a bellwether for Mexican politics, went to the polls in February, 2003 to vote on a non-binding referendum regarding capital punishment. Despite Mexico's long-standing opposition to executing felons, more than 85 percent of the voters felt that the state should apply the death penalty to prevent soaring crime rates. Appalled by his constituents' demands, President Fox immediately condemned the results and reaffirmed his opposition to capital punishment. "Democratic countries (that uphold the) dignity of people," he claimed, "don't believe in the death penalty." Apparently, Fox's notion of dignity does not extend to suspects tortured into making confessions and then railroaded through the Mexican court system.
ICJ - take note.
 For additional information on Dodd's case:
 To learn more about Resendiz and his crimes:
 For details: http://www.asil.org/insights/insigh104.htm
 To read the legal brief submitted:
 See: http://www.globalpolicy.org/wldcourt/icj/2004/0331mexican.htm. For
additional ICJ comments also see:
 For the current state of the death penalty debate in Mexico:
 The Posner and Woo article:
 United States Constitution, Article VI:
 For additional discussion of this conundrum, see: