Texas Executes Man in Contravention of Multiple International Legal Decisions

Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Credit: Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

The American state of Texas executed 64-year-old Mexican national Roberto Moreno Ramos on November 14, contravening the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and several human rights bodies, which had concluded he was entitled to a retrial or new sentencing hearing because of due process violations related to his trial, and should not be subjected to the death penalty because of his psychosocial disabilities. [OHCHR Press Release] Mr. Moreno Ramos, a Mexican citizen who had been arrested on suspicion of murder in 1992, was not afforded consular assistance or prompt, effective legal representation. See IACHR, Merits Report No. 1/05, Case 12.430, Roberto Moreno Ramos (United States), 28 January 2005. He is the sixth Mexican national to be executed in defiance of the ICJ’s 2004 judgment in Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States) ordering the “review and reconsider[ation]” of convictions and death sentences because of authorities’ failure to respect the rights of Mexican nationals and the Mexican government to consular information and notification. [Mexican Government Press Release]

Recent Developments

The execution by lethal injection, which was scheduled for November 14, 2018, proceeded as planned following U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s decision to decline Mr. Moreno Ramos’ request to temporarily stay the execution. [Washington Post] Mr. Moreno Ramos had filed a case the day before against the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a final attempt before U.S. courts to prevent his execution. [Washington Post] Prior appeals before national courts have all failed, with two appellate courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles having declined his requests to stop the execution. [Washington Post] On Wednesday, November 14, the U.S. Supreme Court denied two appeals seeking to halt the execution. [NYTimes]

As the date of the execution drew closer, various human rights experts issued urgent statements on behalf of Mr. Moreno Ramos. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a joint statement on November 13 reminding the U.S. that “international human rights standards prohibit the use of the death penalty” against individuals suffering from psychosocial disabilities and calling for the State to stop the execution amid concerns over violations of his right to a fair trial. [OHCHR Press Release] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged the U.S. to halt Mr. Moreno Ramos’ execution and to comply with its prior recommendations concerning his case. [IACHR Press Release: Stay] On November 1, the IACHR stated again that the government’s failure to comply with its recommendations to stay the execution would contravene its international human rights obligations. [IACHR Press Release: Stay]

Following Mr. Moreno Ramos’ execution, the IACHR issued a statement condemning the U.S. for defying its recommendations in its 2005 decision concerning his case and for “committ[ing] a grave and irreparable violation of the fundamental right to life under Article 1 of the American Declaration.” [IACHR Press Release: Execution] Additionally, the Chairperson of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (COE) expressed regret over the decision by the U.S., an observer State to the COE, to move forward with the execution “despite the call from international organisations, including the Council of Europe, and numerous NGOs, to suspend the application of the death penalty and to properly review his case.” [COE Press Release]

Background on the Moreno Ramos Case

Procedure before the ICJ 

Mr. Moreno Ramos, who suffered from psychosocial disabilities prior to his crime, was convicted of capital murder in 1993. [OHCHR] Part of the international controversy surrounding his sentencing stems from his status as a Mexican national and his right to consular assistance in the U.S. In 2003, Mexico brought a case against the U.S. to the ICJ, alleging the U.S. violated its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in 54 different cases in which Mexican nationals, including Mr. Moreno Ramos, had been sentenced to death. See Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States of America), Judgment, 31 March 2004, ICJ Reports 2004. In 2004, the ICJ found the U.S. to be in violation of these obligations in part because Texas authorities neglected to notify the accused of their option to seek assistance from the Mexican Consulate at the time of their arrests and failed to notify the Mexican Consulate of the arrests within a reasonable amount of time. See id. at para. 153. The ICJ ordered the U.S. to provide “review and reconsideration” of the convictions and sentences in the judicial proceedings at the national level. See id. at paras. 121, 138-140.

Following the ICJ judgment, former U.S. President George W. Bush directed national courts to review the cases of the Mexican nationals and give effect to the ICJ judgment. See U.S. Department of State, 04. President’s determination (Feb. 28, 2005) regarding U.S. response to the Avena decision in the ICJ. However, national courts did not review the cases. President W. Bush’s directive was challenged and, in Medellin v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the President lacked constitutional authority to direct national courts to comply with the ICJ’s ruling, and that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations was not binding on American states absent legislation from Congress requiring state compliance. [Jurist] Less than a month after President W. Bush issued the directive, his administration announced that it was withdrawing from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes that gives the ICJ jurisdiction to hear disputes under the Convention—a move that was largely criticized by the international community. [NYTimes: Withdraw]

Procedure before the IACHR 

In addition to the case filed by Mexico before the ICJ, Mr. Moreno Ramos filed a petition before the IACHR in 2002. See IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 61/03, Petition P4446/02, Roberto Moreno Ramos (United States), 10 October 2003. The IACHR admitted the petition in 2003 over the State’s objection that the petition should be held inadmissible on the ground of duplication given the proceedings pending before the ICJ. See id. at paras. 24, 36, 54-55. The IACHR concluded that the petition did not duplicate the proceeding before the ICJ because the parties and claims alleged were different in each proceeding. See id. at 55.

At the merits stage, the Commission ultimately found that the U.S. had violated the rights to equality before the law, fair trial, and due process under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man with respect to the legal proceedings against Mr. Moreno Ramos. See Roberto Moreno Ramos (United States), 28 January 2005, at para. 4. The Commission was also clear that should the U.S. proceed with the execution, it would commit a “grave and irreparable violation of [Mr. Moreno Ramos’] right to life under Article I of the American Declaration.” See id. The U.S. submitted that it “respectfully disagreed with the analysis and conclusions” of the Commission. See id. at para. 79.

The Death Penalty & International Human Rights Standards

While the relevant human rights instruments do not ban the death penalty outright, at both the Inter-American and United Nation levels, authorities overseeing the implementation of human rights treaties are increasingly vocal about the need to move toward total abolition and limited application. See UN Secretary General, Question of the death penalty: Report of the Secretary General, UN Doc. A/HRC/39/19, 14 September 2018.

The IACHR’s report on the death penalty in the Inter-American System elaborates on a number of restrictions and required measures in the judicial process if State-sanctioned executions are to be deemed legitimate. These include strict procedural requirements, restriction of the death penalty to only legitimate convictions of the most serious criminal offences, and thorough account of certain considerations specific to the condition of the defendant. IACHR, The Death Penalty in the Inter-American System: from Restrictions to Abolition, 2011, at para. 8. Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has acknowledged an “internationally recognized principle” requiring judicial guarantees to be rigorously observed in capital punishment cases. See Roberto Moreno Ramos (United States), 28 January 2005, at para. 47 (citing I/A Court H.R., The Right to Information on Consular Assistance in the Framework of the Guarantees of the Due Process of Law, Advisory Opinion OC-16/99, 1 October 1999). Additionally, in October 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a new general comment on the right to life, in which it devoted significant attention to the issue of the death penalty and strongly urged only the strictest application of this punishment in the States that retain the practice. [IJRC]

Globally, the death penalty is overwhelmingly falling out of favor. Currently, there are only 56 States that fully retain and implement the death penalty, seven that have abolished it with respect to “ordinary crimes,” and 29 that have not abolished it, but have not carried out an execution in over a decade. See Death Penalty Information Center, Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries. While 20 of the 50 U.S. states have abolished the death penalty, the U.S. remains the only OAS Member State that is currently carrying out executions. [IACHR Press Release: Stay]

Additional Information

For more information on the Inter-American System, the United Nations System, and theInternational Court of Justice visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub, which also features a guide on the right to life. For an overview of U.S. human rights obligations, see IJRC’s two-page country factsheet. To stay up-to-date on international human rights news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.