HUNTSVILLE, Texas – A Mexican national scheduled for execution Thursday for the 1994 rape and murder of a Texas teenager has prompted a flurry of appeals on his behalf, including an unusual plea from the White House, because of what it could mean for foreigners arrested in the U.S. and Americans arrested abroad.
Humberto Leal, 38, is set to die by lethal injection in the country's busiest death penalty state for the brutal attack of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda.
Leal, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler, had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday seeking to delay his execution so a thorough review of his case can be conducted. The appeal, which was joined by the Mexican government, contends that authorities never told Leal after his arrest that under an international treaty he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government, and that such assistance would have aided his defense.
"There can be little doubt that if the government of Mexico had been allowed access to Mr. Leal in a timely manner, he would not now be facing execution for a capital murder he did not commit," Leal's attorneys told the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in a clemency request rejected Tuesday. "Unfortunately, Mexico's assistance came too late to affect the result of Mr. Leal's capital murder prosecution."
President Barack Obama's administration took the unusual step of intervening in a state murder case last week, when it asked the Supreme Court to delay Leal's execution for up to six months to give Congress time to consider legislation that would allow federal courts to review cases of condemned foreign nationals to determine if the lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases. The legislation, backed by the State Department and the United Nations, would bring the U.S. into compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provision regarding the arrest of foreign nationals.
Lower courts already rejected the pleas, agreeing with the Texas Attorney General's office that since the legislation hasn't been signed into law, it doesn't apply to Leal's case. At least two measures like it have failed to pass Congress in recent sessions.
"Leal's argument is nothing but a transparent attempt to evade his impending punishment," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, told the Supreme Court.
Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., wrote numerous congressional members and Texas officials calling attention to the legislation and the case.
"The government of Mexico has never called into question the heinous nature of the crimes attributed to Mr. Leal and in no way condones violent crime," Sarukhan wrote urging Gov. Rick Perry to stop the punishment.
Perry had the authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve but made no decision while the courts remained involved.
His spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, however, said a review of Leal's case by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009 "provided the review that both the Obama administration and the United Nations now are seeking."
Prosecutors say on the night she was killed, Sauceda was drunk and high on cocaine at an outdoor party in an undeveloped neighborhood of San Antonio and was assaulted by several males. They say Leal showed up at some point, said he knew her parents and would take her home and explain the situation to them.
Witnesses said Leal drove off with Sauceda at about 5 a.m., and some partygoers found her brutalized body later that morning and called police, prosecutors said. When officers arrived, they found Sauceda's head battered by a 30- to 40-pound chunk of asphalt and evidence that she had been bitten, strangled and raped. A large stick that had a screw protruding from it was left in her body.
Leal, who was a mechanic, was identified as the last person seen with her alive, and was questioned and arrested.
"I've prosecuted a lot of murders before and since," Cindy Franklin, among Bexar County prosecutors handling Leal's 1995 trial and now a prosecutor in Alaska, said. "I've never seen that kind of mutilation of the body."
A witness testified that Leal's brother appeared at the party, agitated that Leal had arrived home bloody and saying he had killed a girl. Testifying during the trial's punishment phase, Leal acknowledged being intoxicated and doing wrong but said he wasn't responsible for what prosecutors alleged.
Leal's appeals lawyers disputed a bite mark linked to him on Sauceda's body, calling it junk science. They argued Leal had learning disabilities and had been the victim of sexual abuse, evidence his Bexar County jury never heard.
The question of protection for foreign nationals under the international treaty is not new.
President George W. Bush in 2005 agreed with an International Court of Justice ruling that Leal and 50 other Mexican-born inmates nationwide should be entitled to new hearings in U.S. courts to determine if their consular rights were violated at the time of their arrests. The Supreme Court subsequently overruled Bush, negating the decision from the Netherlands-based court.
Jose Medellin, condemned for participating in the rape-slayings of two Houston teenage girls, in 2008 raised a Vienna Convention claim similar to the one pending for Leal. It failed and he was executed.
Leal's execution would be the seventh this year in Texas where he's among at least nine inmates with execution dates over the next 12 weeks.