Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

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A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.


Protecting Americans Abroad, And Human Rights

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If you were detained abroad, would you want to be guaranteed access to help from your Embassy?  Of course you would.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from officials at the Department of Justice, the State Department, prominent constitutional lawyers, and Clare Gillis, a journalist who spent 44 fearful days detained in Libya, in support of the Consular Notification Compliance Act, legislation introduced earlier this summer by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

This bill enlists state law enforcement officials and federal courts to comply with a 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, known as the Avena decision, which ordered the U.S. to remedy its failure to inform 51 foreign national death row prisoners of their right to access their consulate “without delay”.  This right is specified by the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR), which became U.S. law in 1969. One of the 51 men, Humberto Leal, was recently executed by Texas as Leahy presented his legislation.


Who Cares About Treaty Obligations? Not Texas.

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Can the United States find a way to respect a simple treaty obligation?  One of such obvious importance for protecting Americans traveling abroad?  We’ll find out within a week.

Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, foreign nationals who are arrested while abroad have the right to contact their consulate “without delay” for legal assistance. However, Texas authorities never informed Mexican national Humberto Leal of this right.

Now, the case of Humberto Leal, due to be executed on July 7 for the 1994 murder of a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio, has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Government of Mexico has filed an amicus brief in support of Leal’s Supreme Court petition, noting that the United States has continued to be a “forceful advocate” for Americans detained in Mexico, and urging the U.S. government to uphold its end of the treaty.


Illegal Execution Of Mexican National Pending In Texas

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Humberto Leal faces execution on July 7 in Texas for the 1994 murder of a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio.  As a Mexican national, Leal was supposed to be informed that he could contact his diplomatic representatives for legal assistance, but he was never told this.

The Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR) is a treaty that requires any foreign national arrested outside their own country to be notified of their right to contact their consulate or embassy for help.  This applies to US citizens traveling in Mexico (or anywhere else) just as much as to Mexican citizens inside the USA.  Obviously for Americans abroad this is a pretty important protection. Unfortunately, US authorities don’t always respect this right when arresting non-US citizens; and some, like Leal, have ended up on death row.

Leal was one of 51 Mexican nationals on US death rows who challenged this pattern of neglect in the US, and in 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in Mexico’s favor.  Executing Humberto Leal now would be a flagrant violation of international law.