In a case that might have implications for U.S.-Mexico relations, the safety of Americans abroad and even the 2012 presidential race, Mexican national Humberto Leal was executed last night — as previously scheduled — for the 1994 torture, rape and murder of a San Antonio teenager.
Leal was just a toddler when he and his family moved to the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico, but his citizenship became a key element of his attorneys’ appeals. They said police never told him following his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty.
Mexico’s government, President Barack Obama’s administration and others wanted the Supreme Court to stay the execution to allow Congress time to consider legislation that would require court reviews for condemned foreign nationals who aren’t offered the help of their consulates. The high court rejected the request 5-4.
But questions remain over how Leal’s execution may affect relations between Mexico and the U.S. – and Texas, the country’s busiest death penalty state that shares a roughly 1,250-mile border with Mexico.
In his last words, Leal apologized to the victim’s family, admitting his actions for the first time, before shouting twice, “Viva Mexico!”
Prior to last night’s execution, some framed the question of whether Leal should or would face the death penalty as a showdown between President Barack Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering a bid for president:
Perry, however, has shown no sign of backing down. And the case has thrust the conservative governor into the international spotlight as he weighs an entrance into the presidential race. That introduces politics into any decision he makes about Leal.
If he stays the execution, he runs the political risk of being called weak by conservatives. Allowing it to go forward, it could cast Perry as a staunch conservative who doesn’t give in to the demands of Washington and international pressure. But it also invites comparisons to former President George W. Bush, who was criticized for a go-it-alone approach on foreign policy.
But Perry was not the only person to think Leal’s execution should go forward. In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court majority expressed skepticism that Leal’s execution would have any grave international consequences. Furthermore, the Court said, “Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what the law might eventually be.” Similarly, Perry’s responsibility as governor of Texas is to execute Texas state law.
The belated timing of the administration’s attention to this case and Perry’s connection to it make it seem almost as though the president had political motivations for this sudden and public effort to shore up state compliance with international treaties. Hopefully, that thought will be dispelled by the administration’s ongoing commitment to the cause of consular reciprocity — which is, as Ed pointed out, an important one, for obvious reasons. If the president feels as strongly as his intervention in this case suggests, he can certainly continue to push for the passage of related legislation recently introduced by Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. That bill would require states to abide by the Vienna Convention, the international treaty that ensures consular access in these types of criminal cases involving foreign nationals.