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International treaties, and fools for clients

According to the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Jose Medellin, who's sitting on death row on Texas, could use a penpal.  At least, he could have back then; he was 24 when he wrote that, and he's 33 now.  As you can see, Jose is a little circumspect about exactly how he wound up being slated for execution; the way he tells it,

at the age of 9 years old I came to live with my parents in Houston.  I went to school there till the tenth grade, after that I dropped out of school and went to work for a construction company till I was 18 years old.  At that age is when I got arrested and a few months later I was sitting here on death row.

Maybe some of you, like me, don't remember landing on death row being one of the rites of passage of our youth.  Turns out that Jose's reticence to share the details of his conviction is somewhat understandable.

Back in 1993, apparently while taking a break from his work with the construction company, Jose and several others were participating in the induction of a new member into their gang, when two young teenage girls (14 and 16) happened to walk by.  The gang members grabbed them and spent the next hour vaginally, orally, and anally raping them, then dragged them into the woods and killed them.  When they tried to strangle the 14-year-old with her belt, the belt broke; in his confession a few days later, Medellin complained that "the bitch wouldn't die," and that it would have "been easier with a gun."  The gang then strangled her with her own shoelace, and Jose personally dispatched her friend in the same manner.

Go back to that part about Medellin coming to the country when he was nine.  That made him a Mexican national, and the US is signatory to a treaty, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which provides that when a foreign national is arrested, his consulate should be informed, and he should be advised of his right to consular assistance.  Although Medellin never raised the issue at trial or in his initial appeals, the Mexican government became involved later on, and in 2004 the International Court of Justice held that the rights of Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals had been violated, and that they were entitled to a review and reconsideration of their sentences.

Medellin used this argument in his appeal to the US 5th Circuit, but they denied relief.  Medellin then appealed to the US Supreme Court, but at that point, President Bush got into the act, claiming that under his Article II executive powers, he could order the states to comply with the ICJ's decree.  The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, and Medellin filed another habeas petition in state court.  The state courts denied relief, holding that Bush had no authority to tell them what to do, and last week, the US Supreme Court, in 6-3 decision, agreed.  So if you want to get chummy with Jose, keep in mind that time may be running out.

Of course, Medellin lost on this issue because he hadn't initially raised it.  But what if he had?  There's a 2001 Ohio case out of the 9th District on that very issue, State v. Tuck, where the defendant, a Canadian national, filed a motion to suppress on the basis that the police hadn't told him about his rights to consular access when they arrested him and took his statement.  The court didn't even reach the issue of whether the Vienna Convention created an individual right of access, holding that in any event suppression wasn't a proper remedy; although it didn't reach the issue because of default, the Ohio Supreme Court hinted at pretty much the same conclusion earlier that year in State v. Issa

The US Supreme Court also had oral argument last week in Indiana v. Edwards, which raises the simple question:  if a defendant is deemed competent to stand trial, does that mean he's also necessarily competent to represent himself?  Edwards had a history of mental problems, but had been ruled competent; nevertheless, the trial judge refused to let him represent himself, holding that this would have resulted in the trial being a "farce." 

While looking over some stuff on this, I came across, with a tip from the Volokh Conspiracy, a law review article on self-representation.  Although we tend to think along the lines of the old saw about someone who represents himself having a fool for a client, and that most defendants who undertake that role are nuts, the author actually did some empirical research, and found that

Somewhat surprisingly, the evidence establishes that pro se felony defendants in state court do just as well as represented felony defendants, and the vast majority of pro se felony defendants - nearly 80% - displayed no signs of mental illness. 

The article also "suggests that at least some defendants choose self-representation because of legitimate concerns about counsel."  If you're so inclined, you can download the article from here.


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