Inside America’s Death Chamber

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.  Six 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 two girls and chased them down.  Both were raped and eventually strangled.  The belt the boys were using broke so they used their shoelaces.

Derrick O’Brian, an Afro-American, was executed for his role in the killings in 2007.  Three 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 convictions.

Although the first 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 two-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 Convention disputes.

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 one of five 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.

Two rooms had been set aside for the witnesses to the execution.  In one, six 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 three 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 three 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 two 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.

JOHN ROSS’s web site is up and running if not yet a fait a compli. Ross is in Mexico City in the heat of writing the monstrously entitled “EL MONSTRUO – TALES OF DREAD AND REDEMPTION FROM THE MOST MONSTROUS MEGALOPOLIS ON THE PLANET EARTH.”  If you have further info, please write






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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to