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INTERVIEW La Abogada de Mexico Sandra Babcock’s Battle Against the Death Penalty BY PATRICK TIMMONS s andra Babcock calls herself Mexico’s counsel. Babcock directs the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program. Funded by the Mexican government, the program provides legal aid to Mexican nationals who are charged with capital crimes or who are on death row awaiting execution in the United States. The 38-year-old Maryland native has been at the forefront of using international law as an anti-death penalty strategy for more than ten years. In the early 1990s she was one of the first defense attorneys to use the Vienna Convention in a capital case. Earlier this year, Babcock was in the news protesting Texas’ execution of Mexican national Javier Suarez Medina. Suarez Medina was convicted of the death of undercover narcotics agent Lawrence Cadena in Dallas in 1988. At the time of his arrest the Dallas authorities failed to inform him of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate, a right guaranteed in Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Optional Protocols to which Mexico and the United States are both signatories. His attorney later argued that his rights to due process were violated because he was never informed of his right to contact the Consulate. Police procedurenot Suarez Medina’s guiltturned into a point of conflict between Texas and Mexico. While the defense’s legal battle failed to save Suarez Medina’s life, Mexican President Vicente Fox canceled a state visit to Texas in protest. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program succeeded in overturning the capital sentence of Gerardo Valdez on the basis of Article 36 violations. Valdez is now awaiting a new trial. Currently there are 53 Mexican nationals on death row in the United States; 16 are in Texas. About 140 Mexican nationals accused of capital murders are awaiting trials nationwide. Babcock, an attorney in private practice in Minneapolis, spoke to the Observer during a recent trip to Austin. Texas Observer: What’s the purpose of the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program? Sandra Babcock: The whole idea behind Mexico’s Capital Legal Assistance Program is to rectify what is inherently an unequal position Mexicans have vis-a-vis U.S. nationals [on death row]. The profile of the Mexican national who finds himself in jail charged with a capital offense is somebody who has certainly not graduated from high school, has as little as a first-grade education, and who often has some form of neurological impairments due to exposure to pesticides and head injuries. There is an extraordinarily high incidence of head injuries amongst Mexican nationals who grew up in parts of rural Mexico. Often Mexican nationals accused of capital crimes don’t speak English and are inherently more vulnerable than a U.S. national for all these reasons I’ve mentioned. They don’t understand the legal system, they don’t trust their lawyers because most of their lawyers don’t speak Spanish. So they really need the help of the consulate to overcome all of those barriers. The assistance Mexico provides in capital cases is more than what many poor people in Texas receive. Everybody should be entitled to experts. But the fact is that Texas does not adequately fund the defense of people charged with capital crimes. That creates disparity among cases. The answer should really be to raise the quality of defense for all people on death TOW. It amazes me that a death penalty state can be so blas about these really serious flaws in the system. I don’t support the death penalty, but if I did, then the morally appropriate stance to take would be to make sure that it was fairly applied. Is that so hard? Is that a controversial statement? 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10/25/02