Death Row

Foreign Nationals

Some people on death row in the U.S. are citizens of other countries, raising human rights issues and questions of U.S. compliance with international treaties.

DPIC Analysis: The Issue of Foreign Nationals in the Courts

DPIC Analysis: The Issue of Foreign Nationals in the Courts

The Issue of Foreign Nationals in U.S. and International Courts

DPIC Page: International

DPIC Page: International

More than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. The U.S. is an outlier among its close allies in its continued use of the death penalty.

Overview

Some of those on death row in the U.S. are citizens of other countries. Most nations of the world, including the U.S., are parties to a treaty (Vienna Convention on Consular Relations) governing the treatment of one nation’s citizens when they are arrested in another country that is a party to the treaty. Among other protections, the treaty requires that the arresting authorities inform all foreign detainees without delay of their right to have their consulate promptly notified of the arrest so that legal aid and other forms of assistance can be provided.

The U.S. has not always abided by the provisions of this treaty, particularly when the foreign national is being held by state authorities. The Supreme Court has permitted numerous executions to go forward despite violations of the treaty, saying that federal courts lack the power to address the issue if the lawyer appointed to represent the prisoner failed to timely raise it in the state courts. At least 34 foreign nationals have been executed in the modern era of the U.S. death penalty. Most had raised a claim that they had not been advised of their right to consular notification and that the resulting lack of consular assistance harmed their defense. Nevertheless, progress has been made in informing law enforcement authorities of their obligations under the treaty.

At Issue

International courts and tribunals—including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—have found that the United States has violated international law in the cases of death-sentenced foreigners by failing to comply with this treaty. As a remedy, the ICJ ruled that the United States must provide effective judicial review of Vienna Convention violations in death penalty cases. However, while the U.S. is bound under international law to comply with the ICJ judgment, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that requiring states to comply with the treaty requires an act of Congress. The position of the U.S. in this matter has raised concerns about reciprocity: will U.S. citizens in foreign countries be able to effectively invoke their Vienna Convention protections when arrested?

What DPIC Offers

Through the work of Human Rights Research, DPIC has lists of all foreign nationals on U.S. death rows and all foreign nationals executed in the modern era. DPIC has issued a report on the international implications of its death penalty and keeps track of court decisions on this matter both in the U.S. and internationally.


News & Developments


News

Nov 07, 2018

Clemente Aguirre Exonerated From Florida’s Death Row After DNA Implicates Prosecution Witness

With new­ly dis­cov­ered con­fes­sions and DNA evi­dence point­ing to the prosecution’s chief wit­ness as the actu­al killer, pros­e­cu­tors dropped all charges against Clemente Javier Aguirre (pic­tured, cen­ter, at his exon­er­a­tion) in a Seminole County, Florida court­room on November 5, 2018. The dis­missal of the charges made Aguirre the 164th wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed death-row pris­on­er to be exon­er­at­ed in the United States since 1973 and the 28th in Florida. The announce­ment that pros­e­cu­tors were drop­ping all charges against Aguirre came after jury selec­tion for his retri­al had already begun. The Florida Supreme…

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Stories

Apr 12, 2021

Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of April 52021

NEWS (4/​8/​21) — Nevada: The Nevada Supreme Court has grant­ed cap­i­tal defen­dant Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzmans emer­gency motion to stay a pre­ma­ture dead­line the tri­al court had set for his lawyers to file a claim that he is inel­i­gi­ble for the death penal­ty because of intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty. A tri­al court in Reno had set an April 20 dead­line for Martinez-Guzman, four months ear­li­er than the time allot­ted under Nevada law, which per­mits a defen­dant to file up to ten days before the sched­uled start of tri­al. The court’s unan­i­mous deci­sion did…

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Stories

Dec 07, 2020

Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of November 302020

NEWS (12/​4/​20) — Nevada: The Nevada Supreme Court has over­turned the death sen­tence imposed on Mexican for­eign nation­al Carlos Gutierrez. In a 4 – 3 rul­ing, the court held that Nevada had vio­lat­ed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations when police and pros­e­cu­tors failed to noti­fy Gutierrez of his rights to con­sular assis­tance by his gov­ern­ment. The court fur­ther held, based upon exten­sive mit­i­gat­ing evi­dence pre­sent­ed with the assis­tance of the Mexican gov­ern­ment in his post-con­vic­tion pro­ceed­ings, that the denial of con­sular assis­tance had been prejudicial.

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News

Oct 02, 2020

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Reverses Course, Takes A Second Foreign National with Intellectual Disability Off Death Row

For sec­ond time in eight days, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) has reversed course after ini­tial­ly reject­ing a death-row prisoner’s claim of intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty and has resen­tenced the pris­on­er to life. The deci­sions, both involv­ing for­eign nation­als and both sup­port­ed by local pros­e­cu­tors, marked the sixth and sev­enth time that Texas courts have vacat­ed death sen­tences imposed on intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­abled cap­i­tal defen­dants since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 struck down the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­ly restric­tive def­i­n­i­tion of intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty the state had been using.

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Stories

Jul 01, 2019

Death-Penalty News and Developments for the Week of July 17, 2019: Pennsylvania Joins States Without an Execution in 20 Years

NEWS: July 6—Pennsylvania has joined the list of states that have not car­ried out an exe­cu­tion in more than 20 years. Five death-penal­ty states (Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming) and the U.S. mil­i­tary now have not con­duct­ed an exe­cu­tion in at least two decades. More than half of the states in the U.S. (26), as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. mil­i­tary either do not have the death penal­ty or have not exe­cut­ed any­one in at least 20 years. See States with no recent…

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News

May 22, 2019

Two Foreign Nationals Receive New Trials as U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear State Death-Penalty Appeals

Two for­eign nation­als who were sen­tenced to death in unre­lat­ed cas­es will receive new tri­als after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals of low­er court rul­ings over­turn­ing their con­vic­tions. Jose Echavarria (pic­tured, left), a Nevada pris­on­er orig­i­nal­ly from Cuba, and Ahmad Issa (pic­tured, right), an Ohio pris­on­er orig­i­nal­ly from Jordan, each were award­ed new tri­als by fed­er­al appel­late court deci­sions in 2018. The states peti­tioned the Supreme Court seek­ing review of the cas­es, but on May 20, 2019, the Court denied the peti­tions, allow­ing the low­er court rulings…

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News

Dec 21, 2018

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the lat­est pod­cast episode of Discussions with DPIC, mem­bers of the DPIC staff dis­cuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penal­ty trends and news items of the year, includ­ing the extend­ed trend” of gen­er­a­tional lows in death sen­tenc­ing and exe­cu­tions, elec­tion results that indi­cate the decline will like­ly con­tin­ue, and the pos­si­ble impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teach­ing on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. They explore the rea­sons for reduced death-penal­ty usage, high­light­ing the sto­ries of people…

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News

Nov 13, 2018

U.N. Human Rights Officials Say Planned Texas Execution Violates International Treaties

United Nations human rights offi­cials have urged the gov­ern­ment of the United States to halt the immi­nent exe­cu­tion of a Mexican nation­al who was tried and sen­tenced to death in Texas in vio­la­tion of U.S. treaty oblig­a­tions. Texas is sched­uled to exe­cute Roberto Moreno Ramos (pic­tured) on November 14, in an action an inter­na­tion­al human rights court has said would vio­late the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and Seong-Phil Hong, the Chair-Rapporteur of the Council’s…

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