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Death Penalty Doubts by Bush?

March 10, 2005

As governor of Texas, George W. Bush claimed to harbor few doubts about the death penalty. Now, as president, he seems to have a few.

In his State of the Union address, the president acknowledged growing public worries that a flawed legal process had sentenced innocent people to death. He proposed a $50-million, three-year program to improve training for defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges in state capital cases. Last week's presidential order involving Mexican nationals on death row in California, Texas and other states is another step in the right direction.

Bush's order was triggered by a recent World Court ruling that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention by failing to notify Mexican officials when their citizens were arrested and charged with serious crimes. The Vienna treaty also protects Americans when they live or travel abroad, but U.S. police and prosecutors had widely ignored the pact when it came to foreign nationals in custody in this country.

In his order, Bush asserted that as president he could direct state courts to comply with the treaty by holding new hearings. The order will apply to the 28 Mexicans on California's death row, 15 in Texas and others in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon. Courts in those states must now reconsider the convictions and sentences of each of the Mexicans to determine whether failure to warn them of their right to help from their government caused unfairness in their trials or sentences.

The declaration, which may also extend to dozens of other condemned foreign nationals in this country, is a long way from the systematic national review of the death penalty we'd like to see. But for the man who as governor once parodied the clemency pleas from a desperate Texas prisoner, it's a start.

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