Blows Against the Death Penalty

Local attorney Sandra Babcock recently won a major international court decision

In 1999, when Sandra Babcock left her job as a public defender for Hennepin County, she ordered new business cards. On them, she listed her areas of practice as civil rights, criminal defense, and international criminal law. Never mind that she worked in Minneapolis and had no plans to leave. "My friends all laughed at me. They said, 'You don't do international criminal law,'" she recalls. "I said, 'But that's what I want to do.'" What she had wanted to do, actually, since she was a student at Harvard Law.

Serendipitously, a few months later the Mexican government asked her to set up a program to improve the quality of defense for Mexicans facing the death penalty in the United States. Since the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program was born in September 2000, the program has assisted in 158 such cases. In 66 of those, the defendants avoided the imposition of the death penalty. In eight, the Mexican defendants were sentenced to death. Only two have been executed.

Impressive as those statistics are, Babcock's biggest victories have occurred in recent weeks. On March 31, the International Court of Justice ruled against the United States and in Mexico's favor in a case Babcock helped argue. The court agreed that the United States violated a long-standing treaty giving foreign detainees around the world the right to contact their consulates for assistance. No small technicality during any arrest, it's vital when the stakes include the death penalty.

Aguila legal: From her Minneapolis office, Sandra Babcock makes international law
Craig Lassig
Aguila legal: From her Minneapolis office, Sandra Babcock makes international law

A few weeks later, courts in Oklahoma, which leads the nation in per capita executions, concluded that the World Court's ruling held sway, and that the treaty had been violated in the case of a Mexican man whose execution was scheduled to take place two days later. Even more amazingly, Oklahoma's conservative governor immediately commuted the man's death sentence. There's every chance that the issue will soon come before the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

Last year, Mexican President Vicente Fox awarded Babcock the highest honor Mexico gives foreigners, the Aztec Eagle. An elegant glass proclamation, it hangs on the wall of her Park Avenue office in Minneapolis. Recently, she sat down there to describe her work for City Pages.

City Pages: How did you come to represent Mexico before the World Court?

Sandra Babcock: The second client I represented out of law school was a Mexican national who was wrongfully convicted. His name was Ricardo Aldape Guerra. He was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, and his case received an enormous amount of attention from the media in Mexico. I worked on his case very closely with the government of Mexico and in particular with one consular official in Mexico, a very young official and a brilliant lawyer. Many years later, after I had moved to Minnesota and was working in the public defender's office, he contacted me and asked whether I would assist Mexico with a case that they had brought before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in 1998.

That rekindled this relationship I had had with the Mexican government. About a year later the Mexican government asked whether I would be interested in helping them with this program that they had in mind. There really weren't any other attorneys in the country who had expertise in defending foreign nationals in capital cases.

CP: Why do foreigners need special representation in death penalty cases in U.S. courts? Why the help of their consulate?

Babcock: You have to look at it against the backdrop of the death penalty in the United States--the scarcity of qualified, competent, and experienced criminal defense lawyers representing people who are facing the death penalty. People on death row are overwhelmingly poor. That is by far the most common denominator. In many jurisdictions there is no public defender system, and many public defender systems are underfunded. It's an unequal system of justice where someone who has resources, like O.J. Simpson, who was death-eligible, they don't even seek the death penalty against him.

Mexican nationals have additional liabilities. They don't speak the language. Mexicans who grow up in Mexico come from poverty that we can only imagine because it doesn't exist in this country anymore. Most immigrants I see in these cases have come from an almost-feudal agrarian existence. They live in villages that have no running water. There is such poor environmental regulation they are exposed to toxins that affect their cognitive development, that cause organic brain damage. Many haven't been to school, or maybe a year or two of primary school. Many are illiterate. An overwhelming number of Mexican nationals facing the death penalty have experienced head trauma from accidents.

They also have terrible problems communicating with their lawyers, compounding the problems they have receiving decent representation. Ironically, lawyers who should be spending extra time with these clients educating them about the American legal system are actually spending less time with them because they have to bring an interpreter and everything takes twice as long.

For example, plea bargaining doesn't exist in Mexico. Here it's the most important phase of a capital murder trial. One of your most important objectives is to convince the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty in exchange for some kind of plea bargain in which, say, the accused will plead guilty and receive a life sentence. Mexican nationals don't understand that. They mistrust their attorneys, they don't understand why they are talking to the prosecutor, and they often turn down plea offers because they don't understand that it's in their best interest. The consulate can fill in those cultural and linguistic gaps.

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