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Court to Decide on the Rights of Foreign Convicts

A treaty requires U.S. to contact other nations if a citizen is arrested. New trials could result.

November 08, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Thousands of foreign nationals held in U.S. prisons could win a new right to challenge their convictions if the Supreme Court rules in their favor in a pair of cases that won a review Monday.

The two cases, to be heard in March, are the latest to test whether international treaties can carry weight in U.S. criminal courts.

The justices agreed to hear the appeals of a citizen of Mexico who was convicted of the attempted murder of a police officer in Oregon and of a Honduran national who says he was wrongly convicted of murdering a man in Virginia.

Both men contend that their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations were violated when they were arrested in the United States. As a result, they say, their convictions should be overturned.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Oregon shooting -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about the Supreme Court agreeing to review two cases involving foreign convicts said that Moises Sanchez-Llamas had shot wildly and nearly hit a police officer in Medford, Ore. In fact, the officer was shot in the leg and seriously wounded.

If they win, the ruling could have a broad and unsettling effect on the court system in California and other states where large numbers of foreign-born prisoners are held.

In the Vienna Convention, agreed to in 1963, the United States and other signatories pledged to notify each other through their consulates when one of their nationals was arrested. That treaty can be useful for Americans traveling abroad because it gives them the right to contact the U.S. consulate.

Until recently, the treaty was interpreted merely as establishing an agreement between governments, not a set of rights for individuals. State officials largely ignored the treaty when they arrested and prosecuted foreign nationals.

Last year, however, Mexico's government took the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and won an important ruling on behalf of 53 Mexicans on death row in U.S. prisons. Mexican officials said authorities in the states of Texas and California, among others, failed to notify them when their nationals were arrested. They said they would have provided legal help for the Mexican defendants.

The world court ruled that the Vienna Convention gave "individual rights" to foreign nationals and that domestic courts in the Untied States must "allow the review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence" handed down in these cases.

The Bush administration sidestepped a Supreme Court ruling on these cases earlier this year when it told Texas authorities to reconsider the cases at issue in the International Court of Justice's decision.

Now, however, the Supreme Court said it would decide whether the Vienna Convention "created individually enforceable rights" for the thousands of other foreign nationals held in American prisons.

The Constitution says that "all treaties made ... under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land, and judges in every state shall be bound thereby."

Lawyers for Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a Mexican native, said he was drunk and incoherent when he fired a gun at night and nearly hit a Medford, Ore., police officer. He was questioned for 11 hours without a lawyer, and his statements were used to convict him.

In the appeal, his public defender said the statements should not have been used against him, in part because the Mexican consulate was not notified and could not provide him with a lawyer.

In the second case, Mario Bustillo, a Honduran native, was convicted of first-degree murder in a 1997 baseball-bat attack on a man outside a restaurant in Springfield, Va. He says another Honduran committed the crime and flew home to his native country a day later.

His lawyers argue that had prosecutors informed him of his rights, the government of Honduras could have helped locate the man who flew back to Honduras. They now argue that this violation of Bustillo's rights under the Vienna Convention entitles him to a new trial.

Lawyers for the two states say the treaty does not give legal rights to foreign nationals, especially not a right to reopen a final criminal conviction.

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