The U.S. Supreme Court refused to block Texas from executing a Mexican citizen despite a White House-backed appeal that claimed the case could affect Americans in legal trouble abroad and other foreigners arrested in the U.S.
Humberto Leal was executed Thursday evening for the 1994 rape and murder of a San Antonio teenager after his attorneys, supported also by the Mexican government and other diplomats, unsuccessfully sought a stay. They argued that Leal was denied help from his home country that could have helped him avoid the death penalty.
From the death chamber, Leal repeatedly apologized and then shouted "Viva Mexico!" as the lethal drugs began taking effect. The 38-year-old mechanic was sentenced to death for killing 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, whose brutalized nude body was found hours after the two left a street party.
Leal was just a toddler when he and his family moved to the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico, but his citizenship became a key element of his attorneys' appeals. They said police never told him following his arrest that he could seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under an international treaty.
Mexico's government, President Barack Obama's administration and others wanted the Supreme Court to stay the execution to allow Congress time to consider legislation that would require court reviews for condemned foreign nationals who aren't offered the help of their consulates. The high court rejected the request 5-4.
But questions remain over how Leal's execution may affect relations between Mexico and the U.S. — and Texas, the country's busiest death penalty state that shares a roughly 1,250-mile border with Mexico.
Leal's relatives who gathered in Guadalupe, Mexico, burned a T-shirt with an image of the American flag as a sign of protest. Leal's uncle, Alberto Rodriguez, criticized the U.S. justice system and the Mexican government, saying "there is a God who makes us all pay."
Mexico's foreign ministry said in a statement that the government condemned Leal's execution and sent a note of protest to the U.S. State Department. The ministry said Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan attempted to contact Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who refused to speak on the phone.
The governor's office declined to comment on the execution Thursday.
Relatives said Leal would be buried in a cemetery next to his grandmother in Monterrey, Mexico, as he requested.
"I have hurt a lot of people," Leal said during his final minutes Thursday. "I take full blame for everything. I am sorry for what I did."
"One more thing," he said, then twice shouted "Viva Mexico!" He told the prison warden he was ready, adding "let's get this show on the road."
He grunted, snored several times and appeared to go to sleep. He was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 10 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms.
In denying his attorneys' appeal, the Supreme Court's five more conservative justices doubted that executing Leal would cause grave international consequences. "Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be," the majority said.
The court's four liberal-leaning justices said they would have granted the stay.
Leal's attorney Sandra L. Babcock said that with consular help her client could have shown that he was not guilty. But, she said, "this case was not just about one Mexican national on death row in Texas.
"The execution of Mr. Leal violates the United States' treaty commitments, threatens the nation's foreign policy interests, and undermines the safety of all Americans abroad."
Prosecutors said Congress was unlikely to pass the legislation and Leal's appeals were simply an attempt to evade justice for a gruesome murder.
Leal's argument that he should have received consular legal aid wasn't new — Texas has executed other condemned foreign nationals who raised similar challenges, most recently in 2008.
Leal's appeals, however, focused on legislation introduced last month in the U.S. Senate by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. The bill would bring the U.S. into compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provision regarding the arrests of foreign nationals. It would ensure court reviews for condemned foreigners to determine if a lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases.
"Americans detained overseas rely on their access to U.S. consulates every day," Leahy said after the Supreme Court decision was announced. "If we expect other countries to abide by the treaties they join, the United States must also honor its obligations."
The Obama administration took the unusual step of intervening in a state murder case last week when Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. joined Leal's appeal, asking the high court to halt the execution and give Congress at least six months to consider Leahy's bill.
The Mexican government and other diplomats also contended that Leal's case needed to be thoroughly reviewed. Some warned his execution would violate the treaty provision and could endanger Americans in countries that deny them consular help.
Measures similar to Leahy's have failed at least twice in recent congressional sessions. The Texas Attorney General's office, opposing the appeals, pointed to those failures in its Supreme Court arguments and said "legislative relief was not likely to be forthcoming."
Stephen Hoffman, an assistant attorney general, said evidence against Leal was strong.
"At this point, it is clear that Leal is attempting to avoid execution by overwhelming the state and the courts with as many meritless lawsuits and motions as humanly possible," Hoffman said.
Prosecutors said Sauceda was drunk and high on cocaine the night she was killed, and that Leal offered to take her home. Witnesses said Leal drove off with her around 5 a.m. Some partygoers found her body later that morning and called police. There was evidence Sauceda had been bitten, strangled and raped, and bludgeoned with a large chunk of asphalt.
A witness testified that Leal's brother appeared at the party, agitated that Leal had arrived home bloody and saying he had killed a girl.
In his first statement to police, Leal said Sauceda bolted from his car and ran off. After he was told his brother had given detectives a statement, he changed his story, saying Sauceda attacked him and fell to the ground after he fought back. He said when he couldn't wake her and saw bubbles in her nose, he got scared and went home.
Testifying during his trial's punishment phase, Leal acknowledged being intoxicated and doing wrong but said he wasn't responsible for what prosecutors alleged. A psychiatrist testified Leal suffered from alcohol dependence and pathological intoxication.
Sauceda's mother, Rachel Terry, told San Antonio television station KSAT her family already had suffered too long.
"A technicality doesn't give anyone a right to come to this country and rape, torture and murder anyone," she said.
In 2005, President George W. Bush agreed with an International Court of Justice ruling that Leal and 50 other Mexican-born inmates nationwide should be entitled to new hearings in U.S. courts to determine if their consular rights were violated. The Supreme Court later overruled Bush.