WASHINGTON — Injecting last-minute uncertainty into a case that has garnered international attention, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a late-hour appeal by Texas death row inmate Jose Ernesto Medellin on Tuesday night, disrupting the timetable for his scheduled execution in the 1993 rape and murder of two Houston teenagers.
The 33-year-old Mexican national, the center of an international dispute over U.S. treaty obligations, was scheduled to die by injection shortly after 6 p.m. Texas time. But the execution remained on hold nearly two hours later as justices considered his request for reprieve.
"We're waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court," said prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons in explaining the delay.
The case became entangled in international politics over Medellin's assertion that he was denied his right to contact the Mexican consulate after his arrest. Under a 1963 treaty signed by the United States and 165 other countries, citizens from any of the participating nations are entitled to contact a consular official "without delay" if they are arrested overseas.
An unlikely cast of legal allies, including the Bush administration and much of the world's diplomatic community, embraced Medellin's position, warning that the United States will be accused of violating the treaty if Medellin is executed without a hearing on his consular access claim. The case pitted President Bush against his home state of Texas.
Medellin and five other members of a gang called the Black and Whites were convicted of raping and killing Jennifer Lee Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, after the two girls stumbled into a gang initiation while hurrying home from a party.
Witnesses said Medellin later bragged about the assault and described using a shoelace to strangle one of the girls because he didn't have a gun. Medellin, then 19, also "put his foot on her throat because she would not die," according to a state legal brief.
"Today, this day is for Jennifer and Elizabeth. This is not about Jose Medellin," said Andy Kahan, crime victims director in the Houston mayor's office, who was in Huntsville for the execution. "The sad irony is that Jose Medellin has lived on death row longer than Jennifer lived on this planet."
As the Supreme Court reviewed Medellin's appeal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also considering a recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to reject Medellin's request to delay the execution or commute the sentence to life. The board approved the recommendation on a 7-0 vote Monday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Michael Mukasey have asked the Texas governor "to take the steps necessary" to enable the United States to comply with its treaty obligations. "Put simply, the United States seeks the help of the State of Texas," the two Bush cabinet members told Perry in a June 17 letter.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City has warned of possible protests to "incite anti-U.S. sentiment" in response to the execution. Texas' insistence on carrying out the death penalty against Medellin would also be seen as "a slap in the face" to the International Court of Justice, said Edward Swaine, an international law specialist at George Washington University.
The court, based in the Netherlands, held that Medellin and other condemned Mexican nationals are entitled to hearings under the 1963 treaty. Bush ordered Texas and other states to grant the hearings but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March that the president overstepped his authority in issuing the order.
The Supreme Court ruling demolished the central theme of Medellin's appeals and set the stage for his execution.
Medellin, who had been confined on death row in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas prison system, was transferred to the main prison unit in Huntsville on Monday night to await the scheduled execution in the prison's death chamber.
He received visits from family members on Tuesday morning, including his mother and father, his grandmothers and a sister, said prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. He also met with a friend, Sandra Crisp of Houston, who was invited by Medellin to witness the execution.
Medellin declined a customary last meal, Lyons said. He chose not to invite a spiritual adviser to his cell but will have access to the prison chaplain, Lyons said.
Juries sentenced five of the gang members involved in the murders to death, but two of the sentences were commuted to life in prison. Medellin's younger brother, Venancio, who was 14 at the time, received 40 years. The first execution was carried out in July 2006 against Derrick Sean O'Brien. Gang leader Peter Cantu is also awaiting execution but no date has been set.