SAN FRANCISCO — For two days before he was scheduled to die in an Arizona prison, Ramon Martinez Villareal sat huddled in the corner of his cell, motionless.
The convicted murderer, who has been diagnosed as retarded, didn't talk to anyone. Nor did he order a "last meal." Instead, after an 11th-hour flurry of legal appeals, Mr. Villareal ended up getting something else this week - a reprieve, at least for a month.
Villareal, a Mexican who shot two Arizona ranch workers in 1982, is one of a growing number of foreign nationals now sitting on death row across America.
Their presence is becoming a growing source of controversy, both in American courts and as a diplomatic issue between the United States and other nations - many of which don't have the death penalty.
At least 60 and perhaps has many as 100 foreigners now sit in US prisons, condemned to die. Two are scheduled to be executed in Texas next month. Villareal would have been only the second Mexican national to receive the death penalty in the US since it was reinstated in 1976. His case has become a significant irritant in US-Mexican relations.
Part of the controversy surrounding foreign nationals is legal. Lawyers for a group of death-row inmates charge that at least 31 foreign nationals were denied rights guaranteed under an international treaty signed by the United States. Foreign governments, led by Mexico, have filed formal protests and court suits over these violations of rights.
Beyond the legal issues lie the more profound moral questions about the death penalty itself. The planned executions have raised deep concern in countries such as Mexico and Canada, which not only don't have the death penalty but oppose it. In contrast to the situation here, no American is facing execution in any foreign land, according to the State Department.
Legal controversy focuses on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international treaty that became law in the US in 1969. Under Article 36, police must inform a foreign detainee of his or her right to contact a consul "without undue delay." The consul can then aid the detainee, whether to explain rights under US law, bring family members to testify, or help provide legal representation.
"If we're not going to advise - as the treaty requires - foreign nationals of their right to consular assistance, then what can we expect of other countries when our citizens are detained?" says Robert Brooks, a Virginia attorney representing several foreigners facing death penalties.
Mr. Brooks and others defending death-row inmates sent a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright earlier this month contending there are widespread violations of the Convention. They point to systematic ignorance of the law by state and local police.
The State Department does notify law-enforcement agencies of this legal obligation, but the last time this was done was in 1993, says John Foard, the agency's legal adviser on consular affairs. Even when informed, "this is not high on their list of training priorities," acknowledges Mr. Foard.
But the crux of the controversy centers on the contention, made by the defense lawyers, that the failure to tell detainees of this right is grounds for reversing convictions. "Some of us believe the right to consular assistance is equally important and analogous to Miranda," says lawyer Bonnie Goldstein, referring to the Supreme Court decision requiring police to advise arrestees of their right to remain silent and have counsel.
So far courts have not upheld this view. In the case of Canadian Stanley Joseph Faulder, who faces execution in Texas on June 13, the federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit called Texas' violation of the Convention a "harmless error." In a case brought by Paraguay against the state of Virginia, the State Department argued this is not a personal right, that the only recourse in case of violations is through diplomatic channels.
But lawyers are challenging this position in several federal appeals. The first is likely to be decided next month by the Fourth Circuit. The Mexican government has also filed suit with similar arguments in the Villareal case. In a formal diplomatic protest last year, the Mexican government contended that Irineo Triastan Montoya, who faces execution in Texas on June 18, was not informed of his right to contact the Mexican consul in Brownsville.
"This lack of notification ... deprived him of a legitimate right which may have resulted in a different sentence than the one imposed on him," the note said. According to Vice-Consul Norma Aguilar, without the help that consular officials might have provided, Mr. Montoya was pressured to sign a confession he didn't understand.
Hard feelings in Mexico
This has become a major issue in Mexico, which accounts for 36 of the foreigners facing execution in the US. The Mexican government discussed the failure to implement the Vienna Convention with President Clinton during his recent visit. The issue was initially raised last year regarding the rights of migrants fighting deportation, but the death-penalty has attracted the most coverage in Mexico. "Mexico is against the death penalty," says Ms. Aguilar. "As a government, we think that is not a solution for problems."
These feelings were demonstrated in the case of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, who was recently released after 14 years on death row in Texas. Mr. Guerra had long insisted he was innocent of murder charges. After years of appeals, a federal court threw out much of the evidence used against him. He was received as a hero in Mexico.
* Kris Axtman contributed to this report from Arizona.