December 19, 2003

The Death Penalty: Two countries, two different points of view

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan


The stretch of miles that outline the physical border between U.S and Mexico define and differentiate land and territory. However, the militarized border proves to be irrelevant when it comes to the merger of culture, language and certain laws. Both Mexico and the United States have been boisterous of their opposite stance on the death penalty. Yet, at a given point, both countries are faced with the inevitable compromise of defending their own citizens and laws.

Adrian Camacho, a 28-year-old Mexican national who lived in Oceanside assaulted and killed Officer Tony Zeppetella before stealing his patrol car and fleeing the scene on June 13. Zeppetella, a 27 -year old rookie police officer left behind his wife and eleven-month-old son. Under California law, a criminal convicted of killing a police officer is subject to the death penalty or life in prison, and although Camacho has not yet been convicted, his death sentence is a palpable reality. However, this local criminal case reflects a national issue, where the convicted are not U.S citizens.

When arresting an illegal alien, police must (at the request of the arrested) promptly contact the consulate of the supposed criminal to inform the authorities of the charges against the subject. Once informed, representatives from the consulate both investigate and advocate the foreigner’s case in an attempt to spare him from the death penalty. However, much controversy has risen over authorities ineffectiveness to notify foreign criminals of their consular rights at the time of their arrest. According to Camacho’s lawyer, Alex Loebig, the latter is not due to malicious intentions, but rather to officer’s unfamiliarity with article 36 of the Vienna Convention which states that at the time of an arrest, authorities must “promptly” inform the supposed criminal of his right to contact his local consulate. The U.S along with 144 countries signed the accord in 1969 in an attempt to solidify a consulate’s role.

“It is fairly frequent when foreign criminals aren’t given the right to contact their consulate,” said Loebig. “Most officers don’t know they can inform them of these legal rights.”

Currently there are 119 foreigners facing death row in the United States, 54 of whom are Mexican nationals. Of these convicted criminals, 51 were denied their right to contact the Mexican consulate during the beginning stages of their trial. A procedure that could have very well shifted the direction of their sentence.

“Both the consulate and Mexico’s department of exterior relations are extremely limited when faced with a trial in its late stages,” said Alberto Lozano from San Diego’s Mexican consulate. “Ultimately we can’t do anything because the procedure it’s already too advanced.”

However, there are exemptions to the rule. Last November, Gerardo Valdez Maltos was exempt from the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma, after Mexico’s department of exterior relations intervened in his case only two month before Malto’s scheduled death on July 19. The sentence was halted when the Dept. of Exterior Relations noticed that Malto had not been informed of his right to contact the Mexican consulate. The DER highlighted the mishaps to the state governor and the judge handling the case in an attempt to spare him from the death penalty. Maltos was sentence was reversed to life in prison, which ironically marked a victory for both the convicted criminal and Mexico.

The underlining question however, still remains. Does a criminal have the right to challenge the death penalty in a country where he resides in illegally? According to the U.S government the answer is yes. Once in North America, the incarcerated, whether in the country legally or illegally are offered the same basic rights, according to Loebig. The latter though has inevitably resulted in political ebb for both Mexico and the U.S. who both want to assert their legislative control over pending cases.

“We are not here to defend criminals,” said Lozano. “ But we are here to defend a human’s right to live. The death penalty doesn’t do justice and it is by no means a perfect system.’

However, according to San Diego’s district attorney’s office, in this case, the death penalty certainly paves the way toward reaching true justice. “We decided to propose the death penalty for Camacho after reviewing the criteria for the sentence and studying the brutality of the crime.” said Deputy District Attorney David Ruben.” His illegal status and his race never played into our decision. We simply looked at his offense.”

Amongst the agitation linked between foreign criminals and neighboring countries, stems another controversy. Throughout the nation, Mexican criminals who’ve completed their sentence in U.S prisons, have often times been deported to Mexico through Tijuana without notifying Mexican authorities of the subject’s arrival or his criminal convictions. Although these criminals were born in Mexico, many a times, they were raised in the United States, and speak limited if any Spanish, thus creating an ironic twist of justice, nationality and identity. The main problem arises when the deported commit careless crimes in Mexico because the country lacks the proper paperwork to identify the subject’s criminal history as well as the degree of his convictions. Camacho had been deported from the U.S to Mexico twice for his unlawful behavior. Somehow, he always managed to return to the U.S.

“We need to improve our cooperation program between the two countries,” said Lozano. “When the criminals are deported to Mexico, we are often times faced with little or no time to inform the corresponding authorities.”

Recognized as one of the most controversial subjects in modern debate, the death penalty has been one of president Vicenete Fox’s focal points during his term, next to unpromising immigration accords. In August 2002 Fox canceled a visit to President Bush’s ranch in Texas after his pleads to spare Javier Juarez Medina from the death penalty failed in the state of Texas. Ever since, Fox’s cabinet has fought rigorously to spare Mexicans from the death penalty in exchange for life in prison. It is important to note, though that the strongest foundation of these controversial cases stemmed from local authorities and later on branch out to national departments. When asked if the District Attorney’s Office had frequent communication with the Mexican consulate. The Deputy District Attorney paused and simply responded “The doors are always open.”

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