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Mexican Nationals and the Texas Death Penalty

Out of a total of 25 foreign nationals now under sentence of death in the State of Texas, 17 are Mexicans. Of the four foreign citizens executed in Texas over the past ten years, three were Mexicans: Ramon Montoya, executed March 25, 1993; Irineo Tristan Montoya, executed June 18, 1997 and Miguel Angel Flores, executed November 9, 2000. In each case, Texas police failed to inform them of their right to contact the Mexican consulate for assistance, as required under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

In many cases, the quality of attorneys appointed to represent defendants in Texas death penalty cases is clearly inadequate. Given the gravity of the penalty at stake, Mexican consular officers are instructed to monitor and support defense counsel's efforts, confer regularly with the defendant and his family, and attend court proceedings. Consular officers may also assist by providing funds for expert and investigative assistance, and help the defense to gather evidence in preparation for the guilt and penalty phases of capital trials. In other cases, consular officers support defendants' attempts to obtain a more qualified lawyer.

The Case Histories of the Three Mexicans Executed in Texas Demonstrate What Outcome can Result from the Lack of Consular Assistance.

Ramon Montoya

The death by lethal injection of Ramon Montoya in 1993 marked the first time in more than 50 years that a Mexican citizen had been executed in the USA. Sentenced to death for the murder of a Dallas police officer, Montoya spent more than a decade on death row without any contact with his consulate. When Mexican authorities finally learned of his case, his legal appeals were nearly over and the only remaining option was to appeal for clemency.

Despite extensive clemency efforts by Mexican federal and state officials, including direct appeals to the Governor of Texas, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to intervene. Montoya's death stirred outrage in Mexico: American prisoners received death threats from other inmates and the US Embassy in Mexico City was placed under guard by riot police.

Irineo Tristan Montoya

On 18 June 1997, Texas executed Irineo Tristan Montoya, a Mexican national sentenced to death in 1986 for mere complicity. Following his arrest, Montoya underwent a lengthy police interrogation without the presence of an attorney or the assistance of the Mexican Consulate. He then signed a four-page confession written in English, a language that he did not read, speak or understand, thinking that it was instead a document allowing his deportation. Texas authorities were aware of Montoya's nationality but failed to inform him of his right to consular access.

Shortly before the execution, the State Department contacted the Governor of Texas at the request of Mexico, in a belated attempt to determine the circumstances surrounding the breach of Article 36. However, in a remarkable reply, state officials refused to investigate the violation or to assess its possible impact on the grounds that Texas was not a signatory to the Vienna Convention. A final appeal to the US Supreme Court based on the treaty violation was dismissed without comment.

The day after the execution, the then Governor Bush's spokesperson assured the people of Mexico that Tristan Montoya had received all the legal protections provided under the US Constitution-- neither apologizing for the treaty violation or recognizing its significance. The response in Mexico was spontaneous and dramatic: the border was closed for several hours by angry demonstrations and thousands of Mexican citizens lined the route of the funeral procession. American prisoners in Mexican prisons were placed in protective custody to save them from acts of violence against them.

Miguel Angel Flores

Charged with rape and murder, Miguel Angel Flores was represented at trial by a court-appointed attorney who was unable to speak Spanish. Thus, the lawyer did not interview the Flores family or call them to testify, so the jury never learned of Miguel's mental impairments, his total lack of a criminal record or the many positive aspects of his background and character. In fact, the defense final argument at the sentencing phase took less than ten minutes (when normally it can take up to 3 hours). Because of his misunderstanding of the concept of mitigating evidence, the defense attorney actually argued against his client's only hope of avoiding a death sentence:

"...I'm not going to get up here and talk to you about mitigating evidence because that's ridiculous. That's ridiculous. The charge in here that talks about mitigating evidence is ridiculous. I don't have any more right to try and get up here and ask you people to vote such as to assess the death penalty because of mitigating evidence."

Even the prosecution objected to this speech as a misstatement of the law.

Miguel Flores was quickly sentenced to death by jurors who knew nothing of his true character.

The Following Case Histories, in Comparison, Illustrate That the Timely Presence of Consular Assistance can Mean the Difference Between Life Imprisonment and Death Sentences for Mexican Nationals Facing the Death Penalty in Texas.

Hector Morales Villa and Omar Ayala Mendoza

In June 1989, Texas police officers kidnapped Mexican nationals Hector Morales Villa and Omar Ayala Mendoza in Palau, Coahuila, and transported them across the border to face capital murder charges in Port Arthur, Texas. Neither was advised of his rights under article 36 of the Vienna Convention.

The Mexican Consulate in Houston learned of the case shortly after the arrest and immediately contacted defense counsel. Over the next several months, consular officers assisted attorneys in preparing a writ of habeas corpus challenging the defendants' confinement under the Mexico-U. S. Extradition Treaty. The government of Mexico formally protested the illegal capture of both defendants in a diplomatic note filed with the U. S. Department of State, and also started criminal proceedings against the police officers who participated in the kidnapping.

Mexico continued to press for a resolution of the case as Morales' trial began. In October 1990, after a jury had been selected for Morales' capital murder trial, the District Attorney offered life imprisonment in exchange for Morales' guilty plea, a proposal which was accepted.

Pre-trial proceedings in Ayala's aggravated murder case continued. In preparation for the penalty phase of trial, the consulate transported Ayala's parents from Coahuila to Beaumont, Texas. Consular officials were also prepared to testify regarding the extradition proceedings, as well as on international legal issues. Shortly before trial, Mr. Ayala accepted a plea agreement and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. The presence of his parents was decisive in persuading him to accept the offer.

Mexico's efforts were instrumental in achieving a settlement that spared the lives of both defendants.

Francisco Cardenas Arreola

In 1988, Francisco Cardenas Arreola was charged with the capital murder of a police officer in Fort Bend County, Texas. State authorities failed to notify Mr. Cardenas of his right to consular notification and access. Over one year after his arrest, and only weeks before his capital trial commenced, consular officials learned of his detention.

Lacking the time to assist defense counsel in preparing a defense, consular officers instead prepared the appeal, and worked closely with appellate counsel for Cardenas. One consular officer traveled personally to the defendant's hometown to interview potential witnesses. In June 1993, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new sentencing proceeding. With adequate time to assist the defense, consular officers gathered mitigating evidence and located crucial witnesses regarding the defendant's mental capacity. Mexico also financed the expenses of a San Diego attorney, a legal advisor to the Mexican consulate, who testified on the issue of consular protection. The jury sentenced Cardenas to life in prison.

According to Cardenas' defense counsel, Stephen Doggett, the consulate's work was "critical" to the outcome of the case.

Ricardo Aldape Guerra

Consular officers in Houston, Texas also provided substantial assistance in the case of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, a Mexican national wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the shooting death of a Houston police officer. Beginning in the 1980s, consular officers worked closely with volunteer lawyers representing Aldape, and provided financial assistance to the defendant's family members so they could travel from Mexico to visit him.

In 1991-1992, consular officers obtained affidavits from witnesses in Mexico, and worked closely with defense counsel representing Aldape in state post-conviction proceedings. During this time, the Government of Mexico funded the travel expenses for two of Aldape's lawyers, who traveled to Mexico to obtain previously undiscovered evidence. In 1992, the Houston Consul General was instrumental in obtaining new counsel for Aldape from the prestigious law firm of Vinson & Elkins.

After spending millions of dollars on Aldape's defense, lawyers at Vinson & Elkins persuaded a federal judge that Aldape was innocent of all charges. In 1997, he was released from death row and returned to Mexico.

The attorney who led the law firm's efforts has stated that he never would have taken on the representation of Aldape, had it not been for the involvement of Mexican consular officers.