By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Advocates are pleading with Texas Governor Rick Perry to spare the life of a Mexican immigrant on death row because the man was not allowed to contact the Mexican consulate following his arrest.
Humberto Leal Garcia Jr., 38, was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl and then bludgeoning her to death with a 35-pound piece of asphalt in 1994. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on July 7.
A group of two dozen Americans, including former FBI Director William Sessions and former Texas Governor Mark White, wrote Perry on Wednesday saying that executing Leal would violate international law and place U.S. citizens in other countries, from soldiers to tourists, at risk.
"Consular assistance provides a unique and indispensable protection for foreign nationals who are unfamiliar with the U.S. criminal justice system," the letter says. "This is true with regard to our own citizens abroad as well."
Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, has also asked that the execution be halted.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed told Reuters that "the governor would have to receive a favorable recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider the clemency requested."
Leal was a 21-year old from Monterrey, Mexico, working as a mechanic in San Antonio when he abducted a teenager he met at a party, according to his Texas Department of Criminal Justice case file. Her nude body was found nearby, and evidence indicated she was raped, sodomized, and then brutally beaten to death. Scratches and cuts on Leal's face linked him to the murder.
That's when Texas authorities should have allowed him to consult with the Mexican consulate, says Sandra Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University representing Leal.
"They would have provided him with highly qualified and experienced defense counsel," Babcock told Reuters.
"I think that consular assistance in this case literally would have made the difference between life and death."
Instead, Leal was represented by a court-appointed attorney Babcock says did not provide high-quality counsel. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1995.
"He had no prior experience in the criminal justice system, he had no record," Babcock said. "Just the kind of vulnerabilities where consular assistance can make a real difference."
Texas executes more criminals than any other state, and that has long caused friction with Mexico, which has no death penalty. In 2002, Texas executed Mexican citizen Javier Suarez Medina over the objections of then-President Vicente Fox.
In 2008, the case of Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen convicted of a rape and murder in Texas, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether he was improperly denied consular assistance. He too was executed.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that in order for an international law such as the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to be binding on the states, Congress has to first pass laws implementing it. The U.S. government has signed the Vienna convention but Congress has not passed a law to implement it.
The Vienna Convention guarantees residents of foreign countries the right to visit with representatives of their governments when they are arrested.
Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a former assistant U.S. attorney, signed the letter urging Perry to commute Leal's death sentence.
"If you ask most Texans about what are the most important principles you should teach your children, keeping your word is one of them," Osler told Reuters.
"You can debate whether we should have signed onto the Vienna Convention; maybe we should get out of it. But the fact is, we have signed it, and we need to keep our word to other nations."
But Mary Jane Peterson, whose son was murdered in San Antonio the same year as Leal's victim and who has been active in victims' rights causes, calls the debate over Leal's fate a "travesty."
"Unless there is some question about the evidence or some evidence of wrongdoing, I think the sentence should be carried out. I know that every time this whole thing comes up, it brings the horror back again for the victim's family."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Jerry Norton and Greg McCune)