An intellectually disabled Mexican citizen was executed in Texas Wednesday night, over widespread protestations that the punishment violated both international and U.S. law. The move sparked strong condemnation from both sides of the border, with Secretary of State John Kerry warning in a letter to Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) that the move could “impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries” and harm diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico.
When Edgar Arias Tamayo was arrested, officers failed to inform Tamayo of his right to request assistance from the Mexican consular’s office — a requirement set by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international treaty signed by 173 nations including the U.S. and Mexico. But because of a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving another Texas execution, states are not required to comply with the international treaty unless Congress passes a law mandating compliance.
In 2008, that ruling empowered the state to execute Jose Medellin even though he was not afforded his right to consular assistance. In 2011, Texas executed Humberto Leal Garcia, Jr., who also appealed his death sentence on the grounds that the police failed to tell him that he could call the Mexican Consulate. President Barack Obama unsuccessfully appealed to block Garcia’s execution, while former President George W. Bush criticized Perry for failing to intervene. In this latest execution, Tamayo was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of a police officer in Houston, Texas, even though he was never afforded his right to legal assistance from the Mexican consulate.
Tamayo’s execution not only flouted international law; it also tested U.S. Supreme Court precedent that bars executing the mentally disabled. Tamayo’s IQ score is “well below normal” at 67, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that execution of the severely mentally disabled is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, in Atkins v. Virginia, the court referenced the clinical definition of “mental retardation” as a person with an IQ of 70 or less who demonstrated “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.” Texas is one of several states that have exploited a loophole in the high court’s directives to execute the mentally disabled anyway. But in this case, Tamayo’s lawyers never made this argument at trial. One of Mexico’s arguments against execution is that, had the Mexican consulate been informed of Tamayo’s charges earlier as required, they could have raised that defense to spare his life.