The Obama administration took the unusual step Friday of asking the Supreme Court to stop Texas from executing a Mexican citizen convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl.
The administration said the court should delay the planned July 7 execution of Humberto Leal for up to six months to give Congress time to consider legislation that would directly affect Leal's case.
The 38-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico, wasn't told he could contact the Mexican consulate after his arrest for the murder of Adria Sauceda. His lawyers say police violated an international treaty by not telling Leal he could have consular assistance.
Legislation pending in the Senate would allow federal courts to review cases of condemned foreign nationals to determine if the lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases. Last week, a federal judge refused to delay the execution.
The Supreme Court has previously ruled that states can't be forced to comply with the provisions of treaties without some intervening federal legislation.
The federal government rarely intervenes in state death penalty cases. The thrust of the administration's legal argument deals with the government's international treaty obligations, not Leal's guilt or innocence, or even whether he should ultimately be executed.
"This case implicates United States foreign-policy interests of the highest order," including protecting U.S. citizens abroad and promoting good relations with other countries, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said. Verrilli, the administration's new chief Supreme Court lawyer, has long represented death row inmates free of charge in his private practice.
State Department legal adviser Harold Koh separately has written Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas officials asking them to step in and put off the execution.
The administration's legal filing was provided by Leal's lawyers. The Justice Department did not immediately comment Friday.
The Mexican government and other countries have joined the legal fight to grant Leal a reprieve.
Police discovered Sauceda's nude body on a dirt road in San Antonio in May 1994. Evidence showed she had been raped, bitten and strangled. A large stick that had a screw protruding from it was left in her body.
Among other evidence, the bite mark was matched to Leal. Her bloody blouse was found at Leal's home. She and Leal had been attending a party not far from where she was found.