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High Court Won’t Hear Death Penalty Case

November 17, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite the concerns of two justices, the Supreme Court refused Monday to be drawn into an international death penalty debate over the legal rights of a Mexican on Oklahoma’s death row.

The court was asked to consider whether American prosecutors are violating a 1963 international treaty when they do not notify foreign governments about death penalty cases involving people from their countries. That issue is being debated internationally.

Justices had been urged to take that up in the appeal of Mexican national Osbaldo Torres, also known as Osbaldo Torres Aguilera, who argued that Oklahoma should not be allowed to put him to death.

The court refused without comment to hear his appeal. Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer wrote their own opinions expressing concerns.

``It surely is reasonable to presume that most foreign nationals are unaware of the provisions of the Vienna Convention (as are, it seems, many local prosecutors),″ Stevens wrote.

The treaty says consular officers have the right to be notified and visit any national in prison, custody or detention, to arrange for legal representation.

The World Court at The Hague ruled earlier this year that the United States should delay the executions of several men, including Torres, while the court investigates whether the more than 50 Mexican nationals on U.S. death rows were given their right to legal help from the Mexican government.

Breyer said the Supreme Court should not have disposed of the Torres case until the World Court has finished its deliberations.

Torres asked justices to consider whether his sentence should be thrown out because he never was told he could talk to Mexican consular officials.

Torres was 18 when he was arrested in Oklahoma City not far from where a couple was shot to death in their bed in 1993. He had blood on his shirt and was with another man identified by witnesses as the shooter.

Sandra Babcock of Minneapolis, the lawyer for the Mexican government, told justices in a filing that when Torres was arrested he had not finished high school and had no lawyer. She said Mexican officials would have liked to help him with his legal defense, but they never were contacted at any point in the proceedings, even after his first trial ended in 1995 with a deadlocked jury.

He was convicted of first-degree murder at a second trial in 1996, and Mexican officials were told of his death sentence by his family. Torres also is challenging his conviction.

Jennifer Miller, an assistant attorney general for Oklahoma, said the Supreme Court already has rejected one appeal from Torres, in 1999, on other claims. She said that this case was not the right one to address the international issue.

The World Court, officially known as the International Court of Justice, had tried to intervene on behalf of Torres and two Texas death row inmates from Mexico. It has no power to enforce its decisions, which the United States has disregarded in the past.

Babcock said a weeklong hearing has been scheduled by the court to discuss the issue next month.

Mexico does not use the death penalty. In August 2002, Mexican President Vicente Fox canceled a visit to President Bush’s ranch in Texas to protest the state’s execution of convicted police killer Javier Suarez Medina.

In addition to Oklahoma, Mexicans are on death rows in other states, including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon.

The case is Torres v. Mullin, 03-5781.

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