Texas executed a Mexican man on Thursday night after shrugging off concerns voiced by Obama administration lawyers and a broad cross-section of legal and foreign policy experts that the execution violated international law and could undermine the legal rights of Americans traveling or living abroad.
Humberto Leal Garcia, 38, convicted of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old San Antonio girl in 1994, was executed by lethal injection at the Texas death chamber in Huntsville.
A U.N.-backed tribunal court ruled in 2004 that Garcia was one of dozens of Mexican nationals sentenced to death by U.S. courts who had been denied their right to legal help from the Mexican consulate. The U.S. is party to a U.N. treaty granting the right of consular assistance to all foreigners charged with a crime.
The U.N. court's decision was endorsed by President George W. Bush, but rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that only Congress had the power to compel states to review the cases of the condemned men.
Legislation to compel state courts to review the cases was introduced in June by Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but no action has been taken on the bill yet.
In a decision late Thursday afternoon, the Supreme Court narrowly rejected a petition by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who stated in a brief that Garcia's execution violated international law and could do "irreparable harm" to U.S. foreign policy interests.
Verrilli argued that the court should grant Garcia a stay of execution until Congress could vote on Sen. Leahy's legislation.
In a 5-4 decision, the court rejected his argument. "Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be," the unsigned majority decision declared.
A dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer, however, said that the majority was "wrong in each respect" in its decision to reject the petition.
The involvement of the White House in the case was particularly striking due to the heinous nature of Garcia's crime. He was convicted of bludgeoning 16-year-old Adria Sauceda to death after violating her with a tree branch. Both forensic evidence and witness statements tied Garcia to the crime; in statements to police, he acknowledged fighting with Sauceda and pushing her to the ground, where he said she hit her head.
Even so, a number of retired military officers, diplomats and prominent Republicans, including Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to Gen. Colin Powell, also backed the appeal, noting that maintaining the integrity of an international treaty protecting the legal rights of Americans abroad was more important than delivering swift justice to one criminal, no matter how depraved.
Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral in the Navy's Judge Advocate General Corps, who signed a letter endorsing the Obama administration's appeal, called the case "terrible" and said he had "no sympathy" for Garcia.
"I'm looking to protect American citizens and American service members who travel overseas, and making sure they have the protection of the treaty," said Guter, now president and dean of the South Texas College of Law.
"I think we need to take a step back and ask what principle is at stake here, and what's best for American citizens," he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry declined to intervene in the Garcia case, and the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons voted on Tuesday to allow the execution to proceed.
"Texas is not bound by a foreign court's ruling," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry. "If you commit the most heinous of crimes in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty under our laws."
Garcia was the seventh inmate put to death in Texas this year.
At least one prominent Republican directly criticized Perry, who is being courted by conservative activists to enter the 2012 presidential race, for failing to intervene in the case.
"I think his position is a parochial position," said John B. Bellinger III, the State Department's top attorney under President George W. Bush. "It's undercutting the ability of the State Department to protect all Americans, including Texans, when we travel outside the United States."
Whether the outcome of the case will impact Perry's national ambitions is questionable, however -- particularly since Garcia had some important final words.
In the moments before his execution, Garcia confessed to his crimes, adding a final twist to his lengthy legal saga, which had spanned more than 15 years and dozens of appeals and decisions by courts from San Antonio to The Hague. Since his arrest, he had steadfastly denied raping and murdering Sauceda.
"I am sorry for the victim's family for what I had did," he said. "May they forgive me."