U.S. death penalty litigation tracks a new course - now it's all about the chemicals used
For the second time this year the state of Texas has executed a Mexican national in its Huntsville death chamber, despite protests from this country, Amnesty International and other organizations.
Ramiro Hernández Llanas, 44, was pronounced dead shortly after 6:00 p.m., the appointed hour for executions in Texas.
Hernández, who spent almost 15 years on death row, was convicted of the Oct. 15, 1997 murder of a rancher in Kerr County, in the Texas Hill Country, where he worked as a hired hand. After bludgeoning 49 year old Glen Lich to death with a steel bar, Hernández repeatedly raped the wife of the former Baylor University history professor. Community opinion on the case ran so high that the defense applied for and received a change of venue to another county. But it made no difference. During the sentencing phase of the case, the jury deliberated only minutes before returning a verdict which set execution as the penalty.
On Mar. 31 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Hernández' final appeal, based on his low level of intellectual functioning. His attorneys told the court that his I.Q. was 70.
But two days later a federal judge in Texas granted Hernández a stay of execution, based upon legal issues surrounding the state's lethal injection protocol. In recent months Texas and other states with capital punishment laws have found it increasingly difficult to procure the necessary pharmaceuticals. Many U.S. manufacturers no long offer the products once used, and member states of the European Union forbid the sale of chemicals intended for executions, particularly to American buyers. Texas and other jurisdictions have been forced to turn to small U.S. suppliers, generally refusing to identify them because of alleged security concerns.
Defense attorneys have contended in several cases in different states that "designer" execution drugs which have not been thoroughly studied carry the risk of a slow and painful death for a condemned inmate, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Texas judge ruled on Apr. 2 that Hernández' execution could not be carried out until the state provided full particulars of its protocol and identified the pharmaceutical provider. But on Apr. 7 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, based in New Orleans, vacated those orders and gave the Texas Dept. of Corrections permission to proceed. The same day the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously not to recommend clemency, a prerequisite before the governor could have commuted Hernández' sentence. Mexican Human Rights Comm'n. gearing up for next Texas execution.
Texas told the Fifth Circuit judges that pentobarbital was one of the drugs which would be used, and that it had acquired its stock from an established U.S. compounding pharmacy. The court ruled that TDOC did not have to identify the supplier.
Pentobarbital is sometimes sold under the brand name Nembutal, manufactured and trademarked by the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck. Lundbeck specifically prohibits the sale of Nembutal to prisons or corrections departments for the purpose of executions. U.S. courts have approved use of the generic chemical in death penalty cases, however.
Hernández' attorneys did not appeal the Fifth Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which typically would have been the final step. Last week the high court justices rejected the appeal of another Texas inmate which presented identical lethal injection protocol issues. He was executed Apr. 3.
On Jan. 22 former Morelos resident Édgar Tamayo Arias was put to death in Huntsville for the 1994 murder of a Houston police officer. That case attracted great attention in this country because of a 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision which said that 51 Mexicans under death sentence in American state courts had been convicted in violation of consular assistance guarantees under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), a decades old treaty signed by Mexico, the United States and dozens of other nations. But in a 2008 opinion the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ICJ decree was not binding on state courts, which follow their own rules of criminal procedure. Congress has never implemented the ICJ decree by passing enabling legislation which would compel states to abide by it. Mexican's approaching date with Texas death chamber poses international risks for U.S..
Although Hernández was on death row when the ICJ delivered its 2004 ruling, the principal issue in his litigation was mental status. His impending execution attracted attention in this county, but far less than in Tamayo's case two months ago. The question of whether Hernández received prompt assistance from Mexican consular officials remains in dispute.
Hernández was born and raised in the border state of Tamaulipas, where drug war violence is daily fare. He entered the U.S. illegally and had a record of prior offenses. His 75 year old mother and siblings arrived to see him for the last time this morning. "Ramiro is ready to come home," a sister said.
Apr. 12 - The United Nations yesterday condemned Hernández' execution. "This case puts the United States in the position of having violated international law, by denying Hernández access to consular services, contrary to the requirements of Article 36 of the VCRR," said a spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillary. Pillary personally wrote Texas officials, but her letter was not answered. Her office called the execution "an arbitrary taking of life, without due process."
Jan. 22, 2014 - Mexican national, convicted cop killer, executed in Texas
Apr. 30, 2014 - Oklahoma inmate dies after execution is botched
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