THE STATE of Texas had an opportunity this week to display a victor's grace. Instead, it rebuffed pleas by the U.S. secretary of state and the U.S. attorney general for help in resolving an international dispute and in the process gave the back of its hand to the country and its obligations.
The issue involved two foreign nationals on Texas's death row. The leading case involved José Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican national whom the state executed Tuesday for his part in the 1993 gang rape and murder of two Texas girls. There is little doubt that Mr. Medellín was guilty: He confessed to the crimes just hours after his arrest, and his conviction was upheld by state and federal appeals courts. But Mr. Medellín, who spoke fluent English and had lived in the United States since he was a child, later challenged his conviction because Texas law enforcement officials failed to inform him of his right under the Vienna Convention for Consular Affairs to speak with the Mexican consulate. The state, which admitted the error, became the subject of a dispute with Mexico before the International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the United Nations.
The ICJ found that Mr. Medellín and 50 other Mexican nationals on death row in the United States were entitled to "review and reconsideration" of their cases because of Vienna Convention violations. President Bush ordered Texas to comply, but the state balked, citing state laws that prevented reopening the matter. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas, concluding that the ICJ ruling was not binding domestically and that the president overstepped his bounds in trying to force the state's compliance. The court, however, acknowledged that the United States had breached its duties under the Vienna Convention. Justice John Paul Stevens, who was part of the majority, urged the state to voluntarily comply or to work toward a reasonable resolution so as to mend the breach. Instead, Texas set this week's execution date for Mr. Medellín, which all but foreclosed the possibility of a legislative or diplomatic solution. In refusing to give the federal government more time, Texas has now increased the possibility that foreign countries will not recognize in a robust way the rights of U.S. citizens detained abroad. Yesterday, Texas executed a second foreign national, Heliberto Chi, a Honduran whose lawyers made arguments about his lack of consular access.
Texas should be commended for agreeing to support federal court review for some of the other Mexican nationals on death row. The state must be held to that promise. And all states and municipalities must be conscientious in the future to ensure that foreign nationals are informed of their right to consular access.