HOUSTON – The Texas parole board refused Tuesday to stop this week's scheduled execution of a Mexican national for raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in a case that has raised diplomatic concerns in both Washington and Mexico City.
Humberto Leal, 38, faces lethal injection Thursday in Huntsville for the 1994 slaying of Adria Sauceda of San Antonio. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 4-1 to deny a reprieve request. The same panel refused by a 5-0 vote to commute Leal's death sentence to life in prison.
The government of Mexico, the State Department and the White House have agreed with Leal's attorneys that he should be given a reprieve because of questions about whether the outcome of his trial would have been different if he had been allowed to obtain legal help from the Mexican consulate when he was arrested.
Similar 11th-hour arguments were raised in recent years for at least one other condemned Texas prisoner. In that case, in 2008, Jose Medellin was executed for his participation in the rape and slayings of two Houston teenage girls.
"At this point, it is clear that Leal is attempting to avoid execution by overwhelming the state and the courts with as many meritless lawsuits and motions as humanly possible," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, said Tuesday in a brief opposing appeals to stop Leal's execution.
The Obama administration took the unusual step Friday of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Texas from executing Leal. The administration said the court should delay the execution for up to six months to give Congress time to consider legislation that would directly affect Leal's case.
Leal's lawyers say police violated an international treaty by not telling Leal he could contact the Mexican consulate for assistance after his arrest for the murder of Sauceda.
The federal government rarely intervenes in state death penalty cases. The thrust of the administration's legal argument deals with the government's international treaty obligations, not Leal's guilt or innocence, or even whether he should ultimately be executed.
State Department legal adviser Harold Koh separately has written Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas officials asking them to step in and put off the execution.
Leal's appeals, already rejected by Texas courts and lower federal courts, focused on a bill introduced last month by U.S. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy that would allow federal courts to review cases like Leal's where violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights is an issue.
"If Texas were to proceed with the scheduled execution of Mr. Leal ... there could be no dispute that that execution would be unlawful -- specifically, in violation of treaty commitments validly made by the United States through constitutionally prescribed processes," Sandra Babcock, a Northwestern University law professor who is one of Leal's attorneys, said last week in her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Texas, by insisting on executing Mr. Leal before Congress has had a chance to act, seeks to break the United States' promise," Babcock said.
Hoffman said two previous congressional attempts with similar legislation have failed and Leal's claim that it would pass this session "is pure speculation" since most bills introduced never become law. He said it would be "remarkable under any circumstances" for the high court to issue a reprieve
"At this point, it is painfully clear that Congress will not act to pass legislation to provide Leal with the relief that he seeks," Hoffman said.
Leal was about 1 1/2 years old when his parents moved from Monterrey, Mexico, to San Antonio.
He was among about 50 Mexican-born inmates affected when President George W. Bush in 2005 agreed with an International Court of Justice ruling that they should be entitled to new hearings in U.S. courts to determine if their consular rights were violated at the time of their arrests. Congressional action is needed now because the Supreme Court subsequently overruled Bush and negated any impact of the Netherlands-based court's decision.
"Texas is not bound by a foreign court's ruling," Katherine Cesinger, Perry's press secretary, said Tuesday. "If you commit the most heinous of crimes in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty under our laws, as in this case."
With the parole board's decision, the governor only has the authority to issue a one-time, 30-day reprieve, Cesinger said.
Police discovered Sauceda's nude body on a dirt road in San Antonio in May 1994. Evidence showed she had been raped, beaten with a large rock and strangled. A large stick that had a screw protruding from it was left in her body.
Among other evidence, the bite mark was matched to Leal. Her bloody blouse was found at Leal's home. She and Leal had been attending a party not far from where she was found.
Leal's lawyers said it wasn't until he already was on death row that he learned from a fellow inmate that he could have sought legal help from the Mexican consulate.