ACLU of Oklahoma Calls on Governor to Follow Parole Board's Recommendation and Spare Life of Mexican National

Affiliate: ACLU of Oklahoma
May 12, 2004 12:00 am

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OKLAHOMA CITY-The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma was joined by a coalition of civil rights groups today in calling upon Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry to spare the life of Osvaldo Torres, a Mexican National scheduled to be executed on May 18. The groups held a rally on the steps of the state capitol in an effort to convince the governor to commute Torres’ sentence to life imprisonment, following a recent recommendation for clemency from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

“”The failure of authorities here to comply with international law had a demonstrably unfair result in this case,”” said Joann Bell, ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director.

Torres was sentenced to death in 1996 on a double murder charge stemming from an incident three years earlier. At the time of his arrest, however, Torres was denied his rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which was ratified by the U.S. in 1963 and compels authorities to notify all detained foreign nationals “”without delay”” of their right to inform their consulate of their detention.

The Mexican consulate did not learn of the case until contacted directly for help by Torres’ family in 1996. By then, Torres had already been convicted and sentenced to death.

In March, the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had violated international law in 51 instances involving Mexican nationals sentenced to death, holding three cases, including Torres’, as particularly egregious.

“”We are talking about simple fairness here,”” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “”At issue is whether a government may accuse a foreign resident of a crime and sentence him to death without first notifying his country and allowing it an opportunity to aid in the preparation of his defense.””

“”This is an incredibly important case – both a man’s life and the principle of each of our rights under international human rights law is at stake,”” she added.

An 18-year-old unfamiliar with the U.S. criminal justice system, Torres was registered with the immigration authorities as a resident alien, a fact which police would have learned upon conducting a routine background check following his arrest. Despite this, Torres was never informed of his rights under the Vienna Convention.

“”The authorities’ failure to inform Torres of his rights under international law is no small matter,”” said Rust-Tierney. “”Timely assistance from the Mexican consulate could have prevented the imposition of the death penalty, by either persuading the prosecutor not to seek a death sentence or aiding the defense at trial.””

Torres was arrested along with George Ochoa not far from the scene of a burglary in Oklahoma City in the summer of 1993; a couple was found shot dead at the scene. The two men were tried jointly on charges of first-degree burglary and first-degree murder with malice aforethought, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant intended to kill the victims.

Prosecutors, however, presented no evidence that Torres committed, planned or helped to plan the murders, or that he was at all aware that his accomplice intended to kill.

Furthermore, one of the state’s key witnesses, a 15-year-old girl who had testified that she saw Torres carrying a gun shortly before the crime, has since recanted her testimony, admitting that she was coerced by the prosecution into claiming to have seen a gun.

At his recent clemency hearing on May 7, Torres admitted that he had planned to burgle the house; however, he added, “”I never killed anyone, and I never knew George was going to kill anyone.””

The Board voted 3-2 to recommend clemency. Six of the seven recommendations for clemency made by the Board in capital cases since 2001 have been rejected.

“”It would be a grave tragedy were Governor Henry to turn a blind eye to justice and ignore the Parole Board’s recommendation for clemency,”” said Bell. “”Let us hope the governor weighs the facts at hand, selects the just course and spares the life of Osvaldo Torres.””

The ACLU was joined at today’s rally by Amnesty International, Oklahoma; the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Oklahoma Criminal Defense Trial Lawyers Association, Latino Community Development Agency, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, representatives from the Native American and African American community, and members of the Torres family.

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