The Execution of Jose Ernesto Medillin —– Inside America's Death
When the reporter from the Mexican news weekly Proceso was ushered into
the death chamber, the condemned man was already strapped down on the
gurney with several clear plastic tubes inserted in his arms. The straps
were yellow. The walls were green, the color of life. He was swaddled in a
white hospital gown. White is the color of death.
The man on the gurney's name was Jose Ernesto Medillin, 33 years of age.
He was about to be executed by the state of Texas for the rape and murder
of Elizabeth Pena, 16, on June 23rd 1993. Another girl, Jennifer Ertman,
14, was also killed but contrary to newspaper reports, Medillin was not
convicted of her murder.
The details of the murders are as banal as they are brutal. 6 young men
had gone to a Houston park to fight, an initiation into the Black & White
gang. Afterwards, they got loaded. Walking back along the railroad tracks,
they spotted the 2 girls and chased them down. Both were raped and
eventually strangled. The belt the boys were using broke so they used
Derrick O'Brian, an Afro-American, was executed for his role in the
killings in 2007. 3 of the other boys were underage – Medillin's brother,
Vanancio, 14 at the time, is serving 40 years. Jose Medillin, who was 18
when he killed Elizabeth Pena, has spent the last 15 years on death row.
How equitable was Medillin's trial? The lawyer assigned his case called no
defense witnesses. Unbeknownst to the court, the lawyer had been suspended
from practice by the State of Texas at the time of Medillin's trial. An
appeals court deemed his defense adequate.
Despite the demeaning details of these gratuitous teenage killings, Jose
Ernesto Medillin was soon to become an international cause celebre.
Because he was a Mexican citizen, born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
(although he had spent most of his life on the Texas side of the border),
Medillin had a right to contact the Mexican consul in Houston after his
arrest under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,
signed in 1963 and designed and ratified by the United States to protect
U.S. citizens abroad from arbitrary prosecutions.
160 nations have since signed on to the treaty.
Although the Houston police had reason to believe that Medillin was a
Mexican illegally living in the United States, they failed to advise him
of his right to notify his consulate.
Such violations of Mexican citizens' Vienna Convention rights are routine
in the U.S., particularly in Texas. Eventually, after he had been
convicted, Medillin contacted the Mexican consul in Houston and complained
that he had never been advised of his right to contact him.
The Mexican government, which provides lawyers for its citizens on U.S.
death rows, has repeatedly denounced the failure of authorities to inform
arrestees of their Vienna Convention rights. But after obtaining no
redress in United States courts, Mexican officials bundled together 51
such cases under the heading of Avena vs. the United States and submitted
them to the International Justice Court in the Hague, more commonly known
as the World Court.
In 2004, the IJC handed down a 14 to one decision ruling that executions
of the 51 Mexicans on U.S. death rows be suspended pending new hearings to
evaluate how denial of the Vienna Convention had impacted their
Although the 1st case on the docket was that of an inmate named Avena, he
had already been removed from death row by the time the World Court
decision was published and Jose Ernesto Medillin, the next scheduled
execution, became the poster boy for the case.
For the Mexican government, the Medillin decision was an extraordinary
victory. Even more extraordinary: U.S. President George Bush, fretting
about the safety of his own citizens abroad and Washington's credibility
when it came to fulfilling its obligations to international treaties,
accepted the decision.
Bush, who, as 2-term governor of Texas, and his then-clemency officer
Alberto Gonzalez signed off on 152 death warrants while in office (the
list includes women, mentally incapacitated inmates, and minors), then
sent letters to the governors of the states in which the 51 Mexicans were
being held, recommending compliance with the World Court ruling. But to
insure that the IJC would never again intervene in such matters, Bush
withdrew the United States from the court's jurisdiction on Vienna
Sandra Babcock, who has often been contracted by the Mexican government to
appeal Death Row cases, was flabbergasted by the unlikely turn of events.
"We had the court, we had the president – I couldn't believe it," she told
this reporter at the time.
But George Bush's entreaties fell on the deaf ears of his successor in the
Texas state house, Rich Perry, who has signed off on more executions than
even Bush (168) during his two terms as governor. The World Court had no
standing in Texas, Perry argued. "If you come into our state and kill one
of our citizens then you will pay the price," he told the Mexican press
during a 2005 visit here.
Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6 to 3 decision sustained Perry's
argument that states are not bound by international treaties unless
specified by congress. Governor Perry immediately set Medillin's execution
for August 5th at The Walls up in Huntsville despite widespread appeals by
such luminaries as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to call it
off. Even the White House did not think it was such a hot idea.
Medillin is 1 of 5 Mexicans on The Hague 51 roster that are slated for
execution in Texas. Next on the list is Cesar Fierro who has spent 28
years on death row after being beaten by El Paso police and forced to sign
a coerced confession (the courts have conceded the confession was coerced)
"admitting" that he had killed a local cab driver. Fierro's attorney
maintains that his client has gone insane while in prison.
2 rooms had been set aside for the witnesses to the execution. In one, 6
family members and friends of the slain girls stood expressionless, their
faces pressed up against the thick glass. Members of the press, including
the Proceso reporter, Marta Patricia Giovini, Babcock and her colleague
Donald Donovan who had argued Medillin before the Supreme Court, and the
condemned man's girlfriend Sandra Crisp, sat quietly in the other room.
Babcock, who is sometimes attacked as "unpatriotic" by prosecutors for
taking Mexican death row appeals, had been there before.
Charles O'Reilly, chief custodial officer at The Walls, stood at the head
of the gurney. Thomas Coll, described as Medillin's "spiritual advisor"
stood at the foot. Did the condemned man have any last words, Coll asked?
In a strong voice, Medillin directed himself to the girls' relatives and
apologized for the emotional pain he has caused them. He hoped that his
execution would provide them the closure they wanted. He thanked his
lawyers and told his girlfriend that he loved her. Then he took a deep
breath and stared up at the green ceiling.
O'Reilly signaled for the procedure to begin and the Sodium Tripental
seeped through the tubes and into Medillin's veins. His eyes closed and
his breathing became troubled. The second chemical, Pancuronian Bromide, a
formidable muscle relaxant, elicited a guttural grunt. The third,
Potassium Chloride collapsed his heart. Jose Ernesto Medillin, 33, was
pronounced dead at 9:57 PM Texas time.
For the Mexican government, Jose Medillin's death was "an irreparable
breach of diplomatic obligations" on the part of the United States. For
Randy Ertman, father of one of the dead girls, it was "justice." He rapped
his knuckles against the glass window sharply and left the death house.
Here in Mexico, when a loved one passes on, mourners will often
philosophize "unos van y otros vienen" – "some are going while others are
coming." It is the way of the world. While Jose Medillin was being
executed by the state of Texas, Gael Villegas was being born in Tennessee.
This past July 3rd, Juana Villegas, also 33, a native of the Mexican state
of Guerrero, and her 3 kids were driving through Berry Hill Tennessee, a
suburb of Nashville. Mexicans first started coming to Tennessee in
significant numbers after the Tyson Corporation sent subcontractors south
of the border to sign up undocumented work crews for its chicken packing
operations there. But times have turned dark in Tennessee for the
undocumented and ICE now raids frequently.
Juana Villegas had the bad luck to trigger Davidson County sheriff's
deputy Tim Ray Coleman's racial profiling radar. Pulling over Villegas,
who was nine months pregnant and in fact was driving home from a doctor's
check up, he demanded to see her license – Tennessee stop issuing drivers'
licenses to the undocumented last year.
But instead of issuing a citation for the crime of driving while brown and
a woman, the usual modus operandi in such matters, Coleman, who has been
trained by the Department of Homeland Security under the 287g program that
deputizes local law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents,
handcuffed Villegas and took her and the 3 kids to the Davidson County
jail where police computers revealed that she had been deported from the
U.S. in 1996.
Juana was immediately separated from her children and locked up. She was
not read her Vienna Convention rights. The kids, all born in the U.S. and
American citizens, were released to her husband.
Because Juana Villegas had the misfortune to have been arrested on July
3rd, she would have to spend the entire July 4th holiday in prison pending
the disposition of her case. While Americans celebrated their freedom and
liberty, Juana's water broke in jail.
On July 5th, she was taken to hospital in contractions and wheeled into
the delivery room accompanied by 2 sheriff's deputies. One hand and one
foot were shackled to the gurney – the deputies released her hand. Sheriff
Darren Hall claims the foot shackle gave Juana enough freedom of movement
so as not to endanger the delivery. By now, some of the nurses were
crying. They asked the cops to leave the room but they refused although
they did avert their eyes during the birth. Mrs. Villegas was delivered of
a healthy baby, Gael (after the Mexican heart throb Gael Garcia), her
third boy. She has one girl. The baby, now a U.S. citizen, was taken from
her immediately and she was not allowed to nurse him.
The next day, when she was to be returned to the county jail, one of the
nurses gave Juana a breast pump to alleviate the pressure of the
accumulated mother's milk. Sheriff Hall, citing jail regulations,
confiscated the pump. Juana's breasts subsequently became infected. Gael
was sickened with jaundice but is doing better now, according to the
mother's lawyer, Elliott Ozment.
Villegas was released on July 8th and credited with time served on the
careless driving charge and is currently battling deportation. If indeed
she is deported back to Mexico, her four American children will be able to
stay in friendly Tennessee.
As might be anticipated, none of these indignities are playing well south
of the border. "You can imagine what a row this would have caused if it
had happened to a pregnant American woman detained in Mexico," wrote
feminist Marta Lamas in Proceso magazine.
One cannot help but hope that the Mexican authorities would have at least
read that imaginary American woman her Vienna Convention rights.