Foreign Nationals

Vicente Benavides, Sentenced to Death by False Forensics, to Be Freed After 26 Years on Death Row

Mexican national Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Kern County, California for supposedly raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter, will soon be freed after nearly 26 years on death row. He will be the 162nd person and fifth foreign national exonerated from a U.S. death row since 1973. In a media advisory on April 17, 2018, Kern District Attorney Lisa Green announced on April 17, 2018 that her office would be dropping all charges against Benavides, one month after the California Supreme Court vacated the former farmworker’s convictions for sexually assaulting and murdering Consuelo Verdugo, which the court called a product of “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false” forensic testimony. The girl, the court said, had never been sexually assaulted and may actually have died from being hit by a car. At trial, the prosecution presented testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin, who told the jury that Consuelo had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that many of her internal injuries were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, other internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures she had sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” During post-conviction proceedings, Benavides’s lawyers presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, debunking Diblin’s false testimony. Dr. Heger described Diblin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” Rather, she said, the internal injuries Consuelo sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. Hospital records and witness statements obtained by Benavides’s appeal lawyers also undermined Diblin’s false testimony. Records showed that the examining physicians from Consuelo’s initial hospitalization had not seen any signs of bleeding when she was brought to the emergency room, and a nurse who helped treat Consuelo reported that neither she nor any of her colleagues had seen evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Indeed, the court said, the medical records showed that the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus that Diblin had claimed were evidence of sexual assault were actually “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. Associate Justice Carol Corrigan—a former prosecutor—described the forensic testimony that Benavides had brutally raped and anally sodomized Consuelo as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” On appeal, prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. Even after agreeing on April 17, 2018 to drop all charges, District Attorney Green refused to concede that Benavides was innocent of murder. “[I]t doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the physical child abuse,” she said. “My decision not to retry the case is not the same as a finding of factual innocence[.] I'm not stating in any way that he’s factually innocent of the death of the child.” At least ten men and women have been exonerated from death rows across the United States after having been wrongly convicted for killing a child. In the cases of Rodricus Crawford and Sabrina Butler, the medical evidence also showed that no crime had occurred, but the defendants were convicted based on false forensic testimony. Benavides is the fourth person exonerated from California’s death row since 1980. A California prison spokesperson said he is expected the be freed “within a few days,” as soon as the Kern County court orders his release.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

Former Death-Row Prisoner Exonerated in Illinois, Seized by ICE

Former Illinois death-row prisoner Gabriel Solache (pictured), a Mexican national whose death sentence was one of 157 commuted by Governor George Ryan in January 2003, was exonerated on December 21, 2017 after twenty years of wrongful imprisonment, but immediately seized by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against Solache and his co-defendant Arturo DeLeon-Reyes after Circuit Court Judge James Obbish overturned their convictions, finding that disgraced Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara had told “bald-faced lies” under oath when he testified to having no memory of interrogating Solache and DeLeon-Reyes and denied having beaten false confessions out of the men. DeLeon-Reyes also was immediately arrested by ICE agents. Solache and DeLeon-Reyes were convicted in separate trials, and Solache was sentenced to death, for the 1998 stabbing deaths of Jacinta and Mariano Soto during a home robbery. No physical or biological evidence linked either man to the murder, but they were convicted based upon confessions they have long said were coerced by Guevara over the course of three days of interrogation in which they were denied their right to consular assistance by the Mexican government, deprived of sleep, and given little food or drink until they falsely implicated themselves. Solache's purported confession was written entirely in English by an assistant state attorney who did not speak Spanish. Solache did not speak or read English and said that Guevara never translated the written statement for Solache before getting him to sign it. Guevera has been accused of framing defendants of murder in 51 cases. According to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Solache and DeLeon-Reyes are the sixth and seventh defendants freed in the last two years as a result of misconduct by Guevara. To date, nine defendants have been released in cases in which Guevara was alleged to have beaten them or coerced witnesses into providing false testimony. Solache is the 161st person wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the United States to have been exonerated since 1973, and the twenty-first in Illinois. At least a dozen of those exonerations have involved misconduct by Chicago police, including five cases in which the notorious "Burge Squad" beat or tortured confessions out of innocent defendants. Aaron Patterson, Leroy OrangeMadison Hobley, and Stanley Howard—members of the "Death Row Ten," who asserted that their convictions were the product of false confessions obtained as a result of police torture at the hands of notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge—received full pardons by Governor Ryan. Ronald Kitchen, another member of the Death Row Ten, was exonerated in July 2009. Among the tactics the "Burge Squad" employed to elicit confessions were shocking suspects in the genitals with cattle prods, beating suspects over the head with phonebooks, and pointing guns in the faces of minors.

Texas Set to Execute Mexican National Despite Treaty Violations, Innocence Claim

Texas plans to execute a Mexican national on November 8, despite claims that he is innocent and that Texas violated U.S. international treaty obligations by denying him access to legal assistance from his government. Senior Mexican diplomats called the death sentence imposed on Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas (pictured) "illegal" and a violation of due process. In a news conference in Mexico City on November 6, Carlos Sada, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, said “From the start, there has been a failure, and from our perspective, this is an illegal act.” Cárdenas was convicted and sentenced to death in Hidalgo County in 1998 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of his 15-year-old cousin. No physical evidence links him to the crime, and his lawyers say there is no forensic evidence of sexual intercourse or any sexual assault. In a pleading filed with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, his lawyer, Maurie Levin, has sought a stay of execution to obtain DNA testing of scrapings taken from under the victim’s fingernails, arguing that that Cárdenas’s “conviction and death sentence bear all the indicia of a wrongful conviction.” Those indicators, she writes, include “questionable eyewitness testimony, coerced, uncounseled confessions, and unreliable forensic evidence." Prosecutors have opposed permitting the DNA testing. Despite U.S. treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requiring law enforcement to notify foreign citizens of their right to assistance from their nation’s consulate, police failed to notify Mexico of Cárdenas’s arrest or Cárdenas of his right to speak with officials from his government. Levin said that Cárdenas repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but that the state did not appoint counsel for 11 days, during which time he was subject to interrogation and gave a series of inconsistent statements, including a coerced confession that was inconsistent with the physical evidence. Eyewitnesses to the abduction—including the victim’s sister, who knew Cárdenas—either did not identify Cárdenas in statements they gave to police or gave descriptions of the assailant that did not match Cárdenas. Mexico did not learn of Cárdenas’s arrest for five months, and has been attempting to assist him since that time. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention rights of 51 Mexican nationals sentenced to death in the United States, including Cárdenas, and ordered that foreign nationals whose consular rights are violated must be provided judicial review to determine whether that violation influenced the outcome of their cases. Cárdenas has sought review of his case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has granted "precautionary measures"—a form of injunction—against his execution until the treaty violation is adjudicated. However, in 2008, in a case in which Texas failed to provide such a hearing to Jose Ernesto Medellin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although the world court decision “constitutes an international law obligation” on the United States, it is nevertheless unenforceable against the states unless and until Congress passes legislation, which Congress has yet to do. Since then, a number of foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. in violation of international treaty obligations without judicial review of their treaty claims. Gregory Kuykendall, a lawyer who represents Mexico, said "It's a significant treaty violation. ... What separates us from anarchy is our commitment to due process and that's the processes of the laws that are in effect in both the United States as well as internationally." Cárdenas has never been granted review of his treaty claim in the U.S. courts.

USS Cole Lawyers Resign From Guantánamo Death-Penalty Defense, Say Government Spied on Client Communications

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review of a petition filed by lawyers on behalf of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri—accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s October 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen—challenging the legality of his death penalty trial before a Guantánamo Bay military commission. But in what has been described as "a stunning setback" to what would have been the first death-penalty trial held before the special military tribunals established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the entire civilian legal team has resigned from the case amid allegations that the government was illicitly listening in on their legal meetings. The Miami Herald reported on October 13, just three days before the Supreme Court decision, that the Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Brigadier General John Baker (pictured) had “found good cause” to permit Nashiri's defense team to withdraw from the case as a result of ethical concerns created by alleged government spying on privileged attorney-client meetings. In June 2017, Gen. Baker advised war court defense attorneys that he had lost confidence in the integrity of “all potential attorney-client meeting locations” at Guantánamo, saying that he was “not confident that the prohibition on improper monitoring of attorney-client meetings” at the detention center was being followed. Attorney Rick Kammen, who has defended Nashiri since 2008, alleges in the Supreme Court petition that his team discovered classified information contradicting government assurances that the facilities in which they met with Nashiri were not being improperly surveiled. In the past, the spying has included, among other things, "microphones hidden in smoke detectors." Because the information relating to the violation of the right to counsel is classified, the defense lawyers have been ordered by the judge in the case, Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, not to share the information with the public or their client. Although Brig. Gen. Baker has released Kammen from representing Nashiri, the case cannot proceed until another experienced death-penalty defender is brought onboard. Two other civilian defense attorneys who are Pentagon employees—Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears—also quit the case with permission from Baker but remain on his staff. The only member of Nashiri's defense team who remains on the case is Lieutenant Alaric Piette—a former Navy SEAL who has never tried a murder case. “I am certainly not qualified as learned [death-penalty] counsel,” Lt. Piette told the Miami Herald, which he says Nashiri “is entitled to and should have ... since the government is trying to kill him.” Kammen says the defense team is "angry about being placed in an ethically untenable position, disappointed in not being able to see the case through, and devastated to leave Mr. Nashiri, whom we genuinely like and who deserves a real chance for justice.” The pretrial proceedings at the Guantánamo Bay that were scheduled to begin on October 30th are expected to be delayed for months, until learned death-penalty counsel who has received Top Secret security clearance to review the evidence in the case is appointed.

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Ivan Teleguz

On April 20, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz (pictured), whom the Commonwealth had scheduled to be executed on April 25. Teleguz will now serve a sentence of life without parole. It was the first  death-penalty clemency ever issued by Gov. McAuliffe. The official statement released to the media in conjunction with the commutation outlined several of the factors that influenced the Governor's decision, including the prosecution's use of false evidence that tainted the jury's choice to sentence Teleguz to death. "[D]uring the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town," McAuliffe said. "In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death. We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect." McAuliffe also cited the disproportionality of sentencing Teleguz to death when Michael Hetrick, the admitted killer, received a sentence of life without parole in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz. "To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear," McAuliffe said. Teleguz—a foreign national from the Ukraine—maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and his clemency petition received support from numerous political, religious, and business leaders.

President Obama Commutes Two Death Sentences

On January 17, 2017, President Barack Obama (pictured) commuted the death sentences of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz, a federal death row prisoner, and Dwight Loving, a military death row prisoner. The two men were among 209 commutations and 64 pardons announced by the White House on the 17th. Ortiz's lawyers sought clemency from the President on the grounds that Ortiz was intellectually disabled, his right to consular notification under the Vienna Convention had been violated, he did not himself commit the murder and was not in the room when it occurred, and he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. Loving's attorneys argued for clemency on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, racial and gender bias in the selection of members of his court-martial, and Supreme Court rulings that called into question the constitutionality of the process by which the military imposes the death penalty. In Loving's clemency petition, his lawyers state, "Issues of command influence, racial discrimination, and improper panel voting procedures – which were ignored by the courts based on technical legal evidentiary rules – will forever overshadow Loving’s death sentence. Executing him [will] not promote justice or ensure good order and discipline any more than a sentence of life imprisonment." Ortiz's lawyers said they were "incredibly grateful" to President Obama for the commutation. In a statement, Amy Gershenfeld Donnella said, "Mr. Arboleda Ortiz’s case highlights several of the glaring problems that plague the federal system no less than state systems: dreadful lawyering by defense counsel; disproportionate sentencing even among co-defendants; significant racial, economic and geographic disparities in the choice of those who will be tried capitally; and procedural constraints that make it virtually impossible to correct a conviction or sentence imposed, even in violation of the Constitution, when new evidence comes to light." His case, she said, "epitomizes the broken federal death penalty system." Although federal law and the U.S. Constitution both prohibit using the death penalty against persons who are intellectually disabled, Ortiz's trial lawyer never investigated his intellectual disability, Donnella said. As a result, the jurors made their decision on life or death "in a complete vaccuum" and "an intellectually disabled person of color with an IQ of 54 who was never able to learn to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, and could not even tie his shoes until he was ten years old" was sentenced to die. Both Ortiz and Loving will now serve sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Human Rights Commission Calls for Stay of Execution for Nicaraguan Man on Texas Death Row

(UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted Bernard Tercero a stay of execution to permit him to litigate evidence that a lead prosecution witness testified falsely against him.) The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a unit of the Organization of American States, has called on Texas officials to stay the execution of Nicaraguan citizen Bernardo Tercero (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on August 26. Under international treaties on consular relations, foreign citizens (including Americans abroad) must be afforded access to their government's consulate at the time of their arrest. The IACHR has ruled that Texas' failure to respect these treaty obligations denied Tercero "his right to consular notification and assistance [and] deprived him of a criminal process that satisfied the minimum standards of due process and a fair trial" required under Inter-American human rights treaties. The IACHR also concluded that Tercero's court-appointed counsel "committed serious mistakes that affected his right to defense" and that procedural rulings by the courts in his case denied Tercero the "possibility to have his sentence effectively reviewed." The Organization of American States issued a statement saying that, "Should the state of Texas carry out this execution, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life" guaranteed in American human rights instruments. As of June 9, 2015, 139 foreign nationals were on death rows across America, with 61 in California and 22 in Texas. 

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