Bush Administration, Texas Wrangle Over Death Penalty Case

The state with the unofficial motto "Don't Mess with Texas" is taking on the U.S. government at the Supreme Court in a case regarding the rights of a Mexican national currently on death row.

In 1994, Jose Medellin was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena.

After his conviction, a controversy erupted when an International Court found that the United States had violated the rights of Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals sentenced to death here by failing to notify the nationals of their rights to inform the Mexican consulate of their detention.

Article 36 of the Vienna Convention requires authorities to notify "without delay" a detained foreign national of his right to request assistance from the consul of his own state. At the time of Medellin's arrest, the United States was a signatory to the treaty.

Medellin, a Mexican citizen who had lived in the United States most of his life, claims that had he known that he could inform Mexican consular officers of his detention they could have potentially assisted him by providing funding for experts or investigators or ensuring that he was represented by a competent defense counsel.

Taking the side of Medellin, President Bush issued a statement admitting that the United States had breached an article of the Vienna Convention that requires such consular notification.

The president issued a written determination that the state courts had to abide by the treaty and review and reconsider the sentences and convictions of the death row inmates. Bush claimed that his determination to have the states reconsider the cases came from his "authorized power to effectuate" treaty obligations.

But Texas found the president's actions to be intrusive on the sovereignty of the states. Greg Abbott, attorney general of Texas, argues that Texas cannot be forced to reopen the cases because "the presidential memorandum transgresses the authority of Congress, of the judiciary and of the states."

Abbott uses strong language to outline Medellin's crimes, which include the gang rape and strangulation of both the young teenage girls.

"Medellin was tried and convicted of murder during the course of a sexual assault," Abbott wrote. "A jury unanimously recommended a death sentence."

Texas asks the high court to consider the presidential memorandum to be a "request," not a "command."

Government lawyers write in legal papers supporting Medellin that the president "has recognized authority to resolve disputes with foreign nations over individual claims, and to establish binding rules of decision that preempt contrary state law."

The government lawyers say that the "compelling national interests served by the president's determination outweigh the relatively modest intrusion on state interests."

The case will be decided by early next summer.