Page 21


Mexico’s lawyer, continued from page 9 case. There were only two published decisions at the time and both were immigration cases out of the Ninth Circuit in California. I called a few international law professors and I talked to a law firm up in Minneapolis that helped me draft this argument and presented it to the courts sometime in ’92. Around the time this was happening I also represented a Mexican national named Ricardo Aldape Guerra, who was innocent. He was convicted of killing a Houston cop and he was wrongfully convicted. So I began to work with the Mexican government. The publicity surrounding that case was overwhelming. As a result of those two cases and in the course of three years I represented other foreign nationals accused of capital crimes: somebody from Vietnam, another Mexican national’s case, and a Dominican. Then in ’96 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans published an opinion in the Faulder case. People read about it and other attorneys started to raise the issue and it mushroomed from there. I developed this very bizarre expertise on the representation of foreign nationals. The problem is that law students in this country don’t learn anything about international law. It’s not a required subject in law school unlike in Europe. In most European countries, I think it’s a core course, in the U.K. for example. In America, judges are lawyers and, like defense lawyers and prosecutors, they know very little about international law. One of the exciting things to me about my field is that by doing this kind of work you can create law. Because nobody has been litigating it, nobody knows anything about it, so if you can craft a compelling argument you actually have a chance of making new law in an important area. TO: What are your perceptions of Texas? Is it changing here or getting worse? There does seem to be great deal of complacency over capital cases here. SB: I really firmly believe what Justice [Thurgood] Marshall believed; that if people were really educated about the death penalty, and about what really happens in every case, then they wouldn’t support it. Texans aren’t fundamentally different from anybody else, I just think that there is a law-and order political atmosphere and the death penalty is a quick and easy answer to violent crime. The death penalty isn’t a deterrent but that’s not the message that gets out. Texas politicians resist taking any moral responsibility for the executions that are carried out in the state. Another problem is the media. The media in Texas too often in the past has accepted the official orthodoxy about the death penalty, which is that the people who are executed are the worst of the worst, they are all evil sociopaths who are guilty and convicted by the good folks, who are the prosecutors and the police who never commit misconduct and who do the right thing. That’s the official orthodoxy about the death penalty.Those of us who work on these cases know that that’s not true. There are many cases involving police and prosecutorial misconduct and many cases where the guilt of the convicted person is questionable. Too few reporters have actually looked into those issues. TO: Where do you get your inspiration? SB: You gain inspiration from feeling what you are doing is the right thing. I feel very strongly that I am doing work that is good work, that is the right thing to be doing, and that someday we are going to prevail. I have a sense that even though we might not win in a certain case, we are making a historical record and someday somebody’s going to look back at what happened to Suarez Medina, to name just one example, and they are going to say, “My God, how barbaric was that!” They will at least know who he was and that there were some people who were protesting his execution. There is a lot of anger as well. I feel very angry a lot of the time. Especially when I come to Texas and see cases involving incompetent lawyers who don’t seem to care. I’m talking about defense lawyers. For prosecutors, it’s their job. I might not agree with it but that’s what they are there to do. For a defense lawyer, his job is to defend his client.When a defense lawyer abandons a client in a capital case or writes just a five-page petition for writ of habeas corpuswhich is what happened in one of our casesthen why aren’t those lawyers just doing divorces? Don’t do capital work, I say. If you are incompetent and you don’t want to work hard, don’t do death penalty work. I think really their license should be taken away. It’s very, very frustrating and makes me pretty livid to deal with lawyers who are like that. Incompetent doesn’t even begin to describe them. Being angry keeps you going. I like a good fight. There are certain people who really don’t like conflict. I think if you are somebody who shies away from conflict then this is not the right job. But in a way, to me, conflict is energizing. Patrick Timmons is a history doctoral candidate at UT-Austin where he studies the death penalty in nineteenth century Mexico. He covered the execution of Mexica national Javier Suarez Medina Jr The Daily Texan this summer. I feel very angry a lot of the time. Especially when I come to Texas and see cases involving incompetent lawyers who don’t seem to care. When a defense lawyer abandons a client in a capital case or writes just a five-page petition for a writ of habeas corpuswhy aren’t those lawyers just doing divorces? 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10/25/02